Memo to Elena Kagan: Not All Jews Spend Christmas at Chinese Restaurants

The blogosphere is lit up with Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s response to a question at her confirmation hearing. The Washington Post reported that a senator asked, “’Christmas Day bomber. Where were you at on Christmas Day?’ Kagan … seemed confused by his query and started answering him seriously. But Graham cut her off and said, ‘No. I just asked where you were at on Christmas.’ Kagan’s response – ‘Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant’ — was brilliant in its humor, timing and the self-effacing manner in which it was delivered.”

Most of the commentary is about Kagan’s sense of humor, like that from JTA, the Jewish Week, and the Christian Science Monitor. Over at Jewcy, Jason Diamond said “a serious burst of pride shot through my being when a person who is possibly (hopefully) going to sit in the highest judicial seat in the land, made mention of one of my favorite Jewish traditions.”

I also hope that Elena Kagan is confirmed. I’m proud that she’s Jewish. I’m even proud of her association with one of my alma maters – yes, I have a degree from Harvard Law School, something I don’t ever emphasize in my current position.

But Supreme Court justices shouldn’t make factual errors, and she ought to know, and the commentators ought to know, that we are way past the time when “all Jews” are at Chinese restaurants” at Christmas. In fact, we all ought to realize that we are either at the time, or close to the time, when half of young adults who identify as Jews will have grown up participating in Christmas celebrations with their interfaith families. The Jewish partners and children in interfaith families aren’t going to Chinese restaurants for Christmas – they’re having Christmas dinner with their relatives who aren’t Jewish.

Two Ways to Help InterfaithFamily.com

We are working with marketing communications consultants to help improve our messaging aimed at attracting interfaith couples and at making the case for welcoming them. The consultant, Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, is conducting a survey about interfaith relationships and current outreach efforts. They are particularly interested in input from people who have one Jewish parent and parents of interfaith children, as well as interfaith couples and professionals who work with them. Anyone who takes the survey is eligible for a drawing to win a $100 AmEx gift card! If you or others who you think might be interested want to take the survey, please go to http://www.interfaithfamily.com/about_u … rvey.shtml.

As announced in our June 22 email newsletter, our managing editor, Ruth Abrams, is going to be leaving us, so we’re looking to fill that position with the best possible replacement. Please check out the job description — if you are interested, please get in touch with us, and if you know people who you think would be interested, please forward the link to them.

Reflections on Rabbi Eric Yoffie Retirement

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement (Union for Reform Judaism), announced on June 10 that he would retire in two years. You can find the text of his prepared remarks on eJewish Philanthropy and articles with more analysis by Josh Nathan-Kazis in The Forward and by Jonathan Sarna also in The Forward.

I have to confess to having very mixed feelings about Rabbi Yoffie. He exercised leadership on many matters that I personally applaud greatly. I personally agree with positions he has taken on Israel, on domestic social policy and justice issues, on interfaith dialogue, on efforts to re-invigorate Reform Jewish worship services, on emphasizing text study, and more.

My problem relates to what I care about most both professionally and personally — engaging interfaith families in Jewish life. I find it somewhat telling that in his prepared remarks — which admittedly are not his final comments, those will come at and after the next URJ biennial in 2011 — that in discussing some of the future challenges facing the Reform movement, and some of the specific work that needs to be done in the next two years — there is no mention of engaging interfaith families.

The Reform movement’s record on outreach to interfaith families under Rabbi Yoffie’s leadership is disappointing. Prior to 2003, the movement had an outreach department with some headquarters staff and a half-time regional outreach director in each of its fourteen regions; all of these people were outstanding dedicated professionals who did amazing work helping congregations welcome interfaith families and attract them to Jewish life. In 2003, the movement eliminated most of the positions, reportedly because of financial pressures. InterfaithFamily.com initiated a campaign that helped to preserve some of the positions.

Then in 2009, the URJ did away with its regions and the remaining regional outreach positions, to be replaced by four outreach specialists who, as talented and dedicated as they are, are stretched awfully thin to serve all 900 Reform congregations. The Reform movement’s outreach department and initiative, once truly a jewel among the movement’s many programs, is in a sadly reduced state.

To be fair, we publicized excerpts from Rabbi Yoffie’s 2005 biennial speech — and those speeches are where the movement’s most important efforts are announced — highlighting two parallel initiatives, which the URJ still supports,  to welcome non-Jewish spouses on the one hand, and to respectfully encourage conversion on the other. But program materials are one thing; staff whose job it is to promote and help with use of the materials is much more significant. I believe that the outreach department was a very “sellable” program – that funding could have been attracted for it – and that the movement’s leadership under Rabbi Yoffie’s direction did not give it the priority it deserved.

The URJ’s leadership may think that the Reform movement doesn’t need to do any thing more to attract interfaith couples and families. In the New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt reported that Rabbi Yoffie said that “his movement is the largest Jewish denomination because it has an “open door, inclusive” policy. ‘We are the place for the intermarried, gay or lesbian, and disabled to explore Judaism.’” I would argue that the Reform movement and Reform synagogues could do a great deal more to attract and welcome people in interfaith relationships – and that if they did, they would see membership increases that would help to alleviate the financial pressures that apparently continue to plague the movement and its synagogues.

Josh Nathan-Kazis reported on his interview with Rabbi Yoffie the following:

As for the growing impact of intermarriage among American Jews, Yoffie said that his movement is handling the challenge well. He said that the movement has “not an ounce of regret” for its 1983 decision to consider the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to be Jewish, which represented a break with Jewish tradition.

Regarding studies that have found a lack of affiliation on the part of many children of intermarried couples, Yoffie said, “We’d like to point out that what that means is at a time when there’s an enormous amount of intermarriage, we’re getting a third of these people into synagogues… Imagine if we didn’t have the [patrilineal descent] decision and how many of them would be in any Jewish framework. I suggest it would be far lower.”

I’m glad to see Rabbi Yoffie re-affirm the patrilineal descent decision — and want to respectfully suggest that the number of intermarried couples that would be in a Jewish framework would be far, far greater if the Reform movement gave engaging them the priority it deserves.

Edgar Bronfman In The News

Edgar M. Bronfman, one of InterfaithFamily.com’s most important supporters, has been in the Jewish press again recently: j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California re-printed an article about him from the Canadian Jewish News.

Mr. Bronfman, who is approaching 80, occasionally speaks publicly about his book, Hope, Not Fear. We published an excerpt from the book and blogged about it back in 2008 when it first came out.

The recent j. article includes many pithy, to-the-point observations by Mr. Bronfman:

I’m not advocating intermarriage. What I’m saying is that intermarriage is here. It’s here to stay. Let’s make it work for us, rather than against us.

Being Jewish is a choice today, not a condition … The problem is not that Jews are falling in love with non-Jews, it’s that Jews are not falling in love with Judaism.”
Jewish law [should be changed] to recognize paternal, as well as maternal, lineage…. Patrilineage was the norm among Jews until the 12th century and the time of Maimonides. We don’t have to worry about keeping the bloodlines pure nowadays. We have DNA.

In 2008, at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America) both Mr. Bronfman and his son Adam spoke out in favor of inclusivity. In a blog post at the time, I reported that Mr. Bronfman said in his speech that the Jewish community needed to stop regarding intermarriage as the “enemy” while Adam urged the Jewish leaders in attendance to consider the potential for positive Jewish involvement by interfaith families.

Long before his book, Mr. Bronfman was a leading advocate for including interfaith families in Jewish life. In 2004 we reprinted an article about him from the Jerusalem Post, and the article title says it all: Bronfman: Children of Intermarriage Are Also Jews. We ran Sue Fishkoff’s fascinating interview of Adam Bronfman in 2007.

I hope both of the Bronfmans will continue to lead the effort to welcome interfaith families to Jewish life.

A Jewish Leader Who “Gets It”

I hardly need to say that intermarriage is not a popular topic. I am often frustrated when Jewish leaders do not agree with me that engaging interfaith families in Jewish life is an issue of such overriding importance for the liberal Jewish community that it should be talked about openly and even aggressively.

Shortly before Passover this year, I had one of those frustrating meetings. When I arrived home later that day, I found in my mail the Passover message to donors to the Boston federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies from Barry Shrage, CJP’s president.

The contrast in attitudes was striking.

In a two-page letter to people who are certainly key constituents of his federation, Barry Shrage explicitly brought the issue of engaging interfaith families directly into the spotlight. Here is how what he said appeared in the digital edition of Sh’ma:

How will this year’s seder be different from all others? Who will sit at our seder? What questions will they ask and what stories will we tell? As we gather our families and friends around the table, many of us will be sitting with children raised in interfaith households and young adults who have returned from Taglit-Birthright Israel trips to Israel. Those children and grandchildren may be asking surprisingly spiritual questions. (A recent study found that the next generation of Jews is actually more spiritual than the last and that the children of intermarriage are the most spiritual of all.)

Hopefully in the future, statements from Jewish leaders, that recognize the reality and presence of people from interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, and say something positive about that reality, will become increasingly more common.

By the way, Barry’s answer to his question is extraordinary too, and well worth remembering:

• In a time that lacks vision and prophecy and that yearns for meaning, our stories are carrying an ancient faith in an ancient God so that our children and grandchildren will have spiritual options to fill their lives with light and joy.
• In a time of greed and selfishness, our stories are part of an old – a very old – tradition of caring for strangers – love of the poor and oppressed – and responsibility for widows and orphans, the elderly and handicapped.
• In a time of forgetfulness, our stories are part of a living chain of learning and literature in the world, inheritors of an ancient and hauntingly beautiful culture.
• In a time of anomie and loneliness, our stories are imbued with a thirst, and we maintain a commitment to creating community and providing a sense of belonging.
• In a time of rootlessness and alienation our stories are connected to a religious civilization with a 3500-year-old history and an infinite future and the ultimate responsibility for the betterment of humankind in the name of the God whose story is at the heart of our existence.   

Rabbi David Gruber and Julie Wiener

We were pleased to see our friend Julie Wiener devote her new column in the New York Jewish Week to highlighting our friend Rabbi David Gruber.

Aside from his fascinating, perhaps unique personal journey – an Orthodox trained and ordained rabbi who now officiates and co-officiates at weddings for interfaith couples – I know Rabbi Gruber is an extraordinary kind person based on my own discussions with him. I’m glad that his experience with InterfaithFamily.com’s Jewish Clergy survey
and talking with Rabbi Lev Baesh, the director of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, helped him develop his own practice.

You can find out more about Rabbi Gruber from his profile on our Network. And you can find out about his conversation with former President George W. Bush in an article he wrote for us just two weeks ago: Hail to the Chiefs: How I Officiated at a Wedding in the Presence of Two Presidents,
and what it’s like to officiate a wedding on MTV in
Lights, Camera, Mazel Tov–How I Officiated a Wedding on MTV.

Scarlett Johansson Wins Tony Award

It’s a strange side effect of working here at InterfaithFamily.com, but I’ve come to follow many of the careers of actors who are adult children of interfaith marriage–and to root for them. I have a particular soft spot for Daniel Radcliffe, the star of the Harry Potter movies, who is only 21, and Scarlett Johansson, 25. I first saw Johansson in Ghost World in 2001, when she was really young.

They are both secular people who identify strongly with their Jewish heritage and do good things in the world in their spare time. I’ll never stop being impressed with Daniel Radcliffe’s advocacy for gay teens with The Trevor Project–it’s not easy to be a young heterosexual actor and stand up for queer youth.

It was delightful to see this video of Radcliffe presenting the Tony Award to Johansson last night for her work on “A View From the Bridge.” They have both matured (I didn’t want to say grown up about DanRad!) into very dedicated actors. It’s strange to kvell about famous young people, but I did, and you might, too–enjoy:

Something Positive About Intermarriage, For a Change

Intermarriage has been trashed a lot in the past few weeks and we’ve been doing a lot of de-bunking: first of the idea that intermarriage is the cause of young American Jews’ distancing from Israel, second that interfaith marriages are more likely to fail. I thought it would be nice to end the week with a positive story.

Last weekend I was trying to make a dent in my reading pile and I found All the Obama 20-Somethings in the April 26 Sunday New York Times Magazine. One of the young people mentioned is Eric Lesser, 25, David Axelrod’s special assistant. I’m reading along about how Eric lives in a group house with some other people who work in the White House, and it occurs to me that his name is familiar.

Sure enough, back in 2005, when he was a student at Harvard, Eric wrote for us about his experiences on a Birthright Israel trip: Integrating My Identity in Israel. Then in 2006 he wrote one of the very best articles we’ve ever published – and the title conveys it all – How My Italian-American Catholic Mother Strengthened My Jewish Identity.

I continued reading the Times Magazine article, and was moved and heartened by this:

Eric Lesser looked out over the containers of Thai carryout, the bottles of wine and the Shabbat candles. “Should we do Shalom Aleichem?” he asked, and the whole table began singing a warbled but hearty version of the song that welcomes Shabbat. In Lesser’s group house of Obama staff assistants, Friday-night Shabbat dinners have become something of a ritual, a chance to relax and spend a few hours with friends, reflecting on the week.… At the end of every Friday dinner, the tradition is that everyone goes around the table and says something from the past week for which they’re grateful.

I wish the folks out there who are trashing intermarriage would stop and consider this example of a young product of intermarriage leading Shabbat dinners for his housemates. There are hundreds and thousands of similar examples of positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families and the young adults who grew up in them; this may just be the first one we know about with a White House connection. I can’t help but think that there would be a lot more, if intermarriage were viewed as an opportunity and not something to be demeaned.

The Text in Them

The artist behind www.talmud.comics.net, Yonah Lavery, got in touch with her fans in North America last night. She has been in Jerusalem studying Talmud (what else?) all year, and just got married! Now she’s Yonah Lavery-Israeli. I was so happy for her.

I was even more happy for myself because she sent along a blog post and a comic about things that are really important to our readers. Like all of her comics, it’s an illustration of a passage of Talmud, presented in an accessible style–in this case the story of the sons of Rabbi Chiyya in Tractate (that’s one of the 60 or so chapters of Talmud, also called a massechet in Hebrew) Berachot (Blessings) 3:18. Here’s the part of the comic I wanted to write about (click on it to see the whole thing at her site):

One thing Lavery-Israeli does in her comics is to show Jews as they are–diverse. We don’t all look the same. She wrote on her blog:

I was working on this comic in a little park in Netanya, and a religious Teimani (Yemenite) girl of about 8 or 9 came up and asked to look through. She asked what they were, and I told her comics of Masechet Berachot, and she was thrilled. It was really gratifying! “This comes from Talmud??” she asked a few times. I was suddenly very glad that I drew some (not enough) sages as people of colour and focussed on or drew in more (not enough) women. It’s so important that religious Jews be able to see themselves in the text and the text in them.

The other piece that makes this comic appropriate is that it’s about the pain of lost knowledge. It’s kind of amazing that this has been a cultural trope since the time of the Talmud. And here’s where we get to make the interfaith family link–it immediately made me think of Jane Larkin’s recent piece for us, Outreach Matters. In her discussion of why in-married families like to participate in interfaith family programs in her synagogue, she considered:

It’s a non-threatening environment. Our groups provide a safe learning environment. An inmarried mom said she felt embarrassed that she had questions about mitzvahs. In a setting where many of the other the participants weren’t raised Jewish and so didn’t expect themselves to know about Jewish concepts, it was safe for this mom to say, “I don’t know.”

We think of ourselves as the first generation to grapple with these issues, but in the learning-based culture of rabbinic Judaism, there’s been always been this sense of having lost knowledge. We learn again and again what it says in the Talmud (also in the same tractate or masechet, Berachot): “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know.’” (I will never forget this one because of the famous Ben Shahn poster–I try to keep those words in mind always.) There’s no way we could ever know as much as we think we should–so we might as well start where we are.

Back to Poland

The Forward ran a feature story by Mladen Petrov , “Poles Create Images That Say ‘I Miss You, Jew’”. It’s about an art project conducted by a Warsaw ad executive, Rafal Betlejewski. On the front page of the paper is a person sitting in a chair in Lodz, where my best friend’s grandmother grew up–next to an empty chair to symbolize all the Jews who aren’t there.

You can see the website of the project, where many Poles have collected their memories of Jews, at tesknie.com. Betlejewski was moved by reading Jan Gross’ book Neighbors, about a pogrom during the Second World War in the small Polish town of Jedwabne.

I’d read about this project before, because I knew about Gross and Jedwabne from working with Joanna Michlic, a historian of Polish Jewry. Dr. Michlic is a specialist on the history of the relationships of Poland’s Jews with the broader community of non-Jewish Poles. She’s also a child of an interfaith family. She and I are about the same age. I was reading about the Solidarity movement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer while she was active in the Solidarity movement–and it was in that context she first understood herself to be Jewish. She was raised with no Jewish identity. Her family didn’t think it was safe.

Her experience of growing up in an interfaith family is nothing like the experiences of the people who use our site. In the Forward article, Petrov writes:

The idea is not strongly supported everywhere. During a recent photo shoot in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, a town near Warsaw where Jews constituted 87% of the population at the beginning of the 19th century, only 15 people showed up. At the Gdański train station, a large number of those who came were in attendance mainly because of their own Jewish roots. Some critics see in the project both a hidden Jewish agenda and a simple gimmick for self-promotion by Betlejewski, who has conducted two unrelated social campaigns in his work as an ad agency executive.

Betlejewski’s partner in the project, Judyta Nekanda-Trepka, tells the reporter, “With the campaign, we wanted to remind people of the actual meaning of the word. ‘Jew’ is not an offensive word!”

Joanna Michlic has made the point that Polish nationalism could have two characters: an ethnic exclusivist character or an inclusivist civic character. In the present day, Poles are choosing inclusivist civic nationalism, and over 3,000 people have posted to tesknie.com to tell the stories they felt they couldn’t tell about their Jewish neighbors.There’s more than one lesson to pull out of this story for American Jews, for people in interfaith families, for people in the United States grappling with how to deal with ethnic difference and immigration. We have the same choices in front of us–to be hidden or to be open, to include or to exclude.