Mazel tov in advance to Chelsea and Marc

With the big event happening Saturday night, this is our last chance to send a Mazel tov in advance to Chelsea and Marc. With the air space above Rhinebeck cleared, and guests reportedly required to turn in their camera phones, we don’t know when word will leak out about the ceremony and who officiated – but eventually it will.

Our friend Rabbi Mayer Selekman gave a great interview on the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia in which he explained the meaning of Jewish wedding traditions – it’s worth watching.

Amidst all the gossip about who is attending, what it is costing, who designed the dress, there have been some very interesting blog posts about the significance of this wedding and marriage for the Jewish community. Rabbi Irwin Kula had an extremely thoughtful (as usual) post in the Huffington Post. In this powerful message Kula moves from the fact of the wedding of a prominent interfaith couple to the need for faiths and groups to emphasize not more group members but rather wisdom and practice drawn from their tradition that helps people construct lives that are ethical, vital and loving.

The Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is a perfect expression of the emerging American religious and social landscape in which one’s inherited group identity bears little or no significance on one’s marriage…

What is unprecedented — wonderful for some and horrifying to others — is that in this era no one needs to reject his or her identity to cross these century-old boundaries. Multiple identities… is the new reality.

We Americans… customize our religious identities — less in terms of some group-belonging need, creedal purity, or theological consistency, and more in order to get a job done — and in doing so, we find greater meaning and purpose.

[Y]ou cannot have people mixing religious ideas and practices… [and] creating families with diverse inheritances… and expect existing religious institutions to be unaffected… Fewer and fewer Americans are getting religion in the cathedrals. They are getting what they need to get their spiritual/meaning-making job done in the bazaar…

Religious leaders … will need to be concerned less with creating good upstanding members of their group (theologically or sociologically) and more with providing wisdom and practice drawn from their tradition that is accessible, usable, and good enough to get the job done: helping “mixers, blenders, benders, and switchers” construct ever-changing lives that are more ethical, vital, and loving within their already-existing webs of relations.

“On Faith” at the Washington Post has run four pieces by our colleague Dr. Marion Usher that offer great advice to intermarrying couples from her standpoint as a psychologist with years of experience working with interfaith couples. The first piece is about choosing a “lead religion” – an interesting approach that Dr. Usher has developed and recommends; the  second piece is about where interfaith couples can go for help, the third piece is about raising children in an interfaith household, and the fourth piece is about developing a solid relationship foundation. I contributed the fifth piece in the series, on what the elements of a Jewish wedding ceremony symbolize and mean.

On Faith has also assembled an amazing panel of commentaries. The comments from the rabbis on the panel unfortunately express a lot of ambivalence towards intermarriage. The head of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick, says:

In itself, intermarriage may not be ideal for the Jewish community – but it is a reality that we cannot afford to ignore. Ultimately, our goal must be the creation of strong, committed Jewish families. And if we can achieve that goal through both in-marriage and intermarriage, then we must make keruv, outreach and welcome, a priority for our synagogues and communities.

Popular Rabbi David Wolpe in a piece titled “A Blessing and a Threat” says:

Love vaults over boundaries and that is often both beautiful and compelling. Much can be lost along the way however, and it is difficult to keep both the integrity of a tradition and its universal messages. As with all great blessings, the blessings of America exact a considerable cost.

Rabbi Jack Moline says “I oppose intermarriage before the fact. After the fact, I support marriage.”

Finally, back to who is officiating – Rabbi Jason Miller says “I have it on good authority that Chelsea’s wedding this Saturday night at Astor Mansion in Rhinebeck, NY will be co-officiated by both a rabbi and a Methodist minister.” I asked Rabbi Miller what his authority was and he said a “colleague” had talked to the minister but the colleague wouldn’t tell him who the minister was and the minister had signed a non-disclosure agreement. So it looks like we’re just going to have to wait.

What the Camp Study Was Really About

Our blog post, Why Intermarrieds Stay Away, on Steven M. Cohen’s new theory that the Jewish community is plenty welcoming of interfaith families, attracted many very thoughtful comments. I mentioned that this new theory was revealed in a study done for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, but until recently hadn’t had a chance to look at the study itself.

It’s a shame that all of the publicity seems to have focused on Cohen’s new theory, because the study – Recruiting Jewish Campers: A Study of the Midwestern Market — wasn’t about that issue at all. The Foundation for Jewish Camp had partnered with the Jack & Goldie Wolfe Miller Fund on an initiative to provide camps with the market research, marketing consultation, and training tools to enable them to reach new families. The preface of the study, which was the result of the market research, states that “enormous opportunity exists to engage a much larger number of Jewish children and teens. Particularly important is the opportunity to engage the children of mixed married families.” One of the specific goals of the research was to address this question: “How can Jewish camps reach out to Jewishly unengaged families and those mixed married who are raising their children as Jews in some way? How should their messaging and communication change for the same purpose?”

There is a lot of interesting discussion in the study. I was particularly glad to see the recognition “that if you want to predict whether a family will send their child to a Jewish camp, you’re better off knowing about how involved they and their children are in Jewish life. Once you know that, it won’t help much, if at all, to learn whether they happen to be an in-married or mixed  married family.” I’ve argued with Steven Cohen for years that instead of reporting on the Jewish behaviors of all intermarrieds as compared to all in-marrieds, it would be more helpful to report on the Jewish behaviors of Jewishly-engaged intermarrieds as compared to in-marrieds, because if the gaps are lower – which they are – the policy question becomes how can we get this population to be more Jewishly engaged.

Another interesting point made is this: “Camps need to recognize that messages which testify to their Jewish cultural depth and sophistication … probably alienate parents (and children) who feel ill-at-ease or unfamiliar with more intense Jewish cultural environments, such as may be symbolized by use of Hebrew letters and phrases.”

One recommended strategy aimed specifically at attracting the children of intermarrieds is “to focus initially (if not well beyond) on the selected subset of the mixed married who are congregationally affiliated. The congregationally affiliated mixed married are so much more engaged in Jewish camps–and  so much more aware of them–than their counterparts who are outside congregations.”

Another strategy: “the likely efficacy of offering scholarship assistance. Those who are the least attracted to Jewish camp are the ones who find camp least affordable.  Financial aid or incentives may be especially valuable in  prompting the least interested (such as many mixed married families) to sample Jewish camp for the first time.”

You can find the complete study on the Foundation for Jewish Camp website, or the Berman Archive website. It’s worth reading.

What the Wedding Might Look Like

I wrote a feature for the Huffington Post that was published today: What Chelsea Clinton’s Ceremony Might Look Like. It’s written to explain, to people who might not be familiar with Jewish wedding ceremony customs, what they might be seeing if the couple decides to have a Jewish wedding or incorporate elements of a Jewish wedding in their own.

I’ve been getting a lot of calls from the media about upcoming wedding. It occurred to me that the decisions Chelsea and Marc make could have a big impact on the decisions of other interfaith couples. For better or worse, what celebrities do has a lot of influence. Think how many people got interested in kabbalah because of Madonna.

If Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky were to make Jewish choices either for their wedding or after, a lot of other young interfaith couples might want to think twice and more favorably about doing the same for themselves.

Hillary Clinton on the Upcoming Wedding

Thanks to Phillip Weiss for putting this story out – Hillary Clinton was interviewed by NBC Nightly News on July 18 and starting at about 14 minutes and 54 seconds into the interview, she was asked how she felt about Chelsea marrying “in an interfaith context:”


I think it says a lot about not only the two young people involved and their strong love but also their deep faith, both of them. But it says a lot about the United States, it says a lot about this wonderful experiment known as America, where we recognize the right that every single person has to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And over the years so many of the barriers that prevented people from getting married, crossing lines of faith, or color or ethnicity, have just disappeared. Because what’s important is, Are you making a responsible decision, have you thought it through, do you understand the consequences? And I think that in the world we’re living in today, we need more of that…

Other than pretty much confirming that Bill Clinton will not be officiating, Secretary Clinton didn’t disclose any more details about the wedding. When she said both Chelsea and Marc have “deep faith,” maybe that suggests a co-officiated ceremony. It remains a mystery.

Something Important About Israel You Can Do Right Now

The Israeli Knesset will vote in the next day or so on a bill that would fundamentally change the Law of Conversion and further concentrate power with the Chief Rabbinate.

As explained in Ha’aretz,

Under current practice, Israel recognizes only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, but people converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside the country are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship like other Jews. The proposed legislation would give Israel’s chief rabbinate the legal power to decide whether any conversion is legitimate. The group most likely to suffer would be immigrants who converted to Judaism abroad and could now be denied Israeli citizenship.

Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet magazine, had a particularly good op-ed in the New York Times:

If this bill passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.

This legislation is important to Interfaith couples even if they aren’t presently contemplating conversion. Israel’s chief rabbinate is totally hostile to any acknowledgment whatsoever of interfaith relationships or any welcoming whatsoever of interfaith families. Extending the chief rabbinate’s power is not in the interest of any interfaith couple that has any interest in Israel. I urge you to go to the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center website and send an email to Prime Minister Netanyahu asking him to intervene and urge withdrawal of the proposed legislation.

The proposed legislation has engendered a storm of protest from the Jewish community outside of Israel, including the Reform and rabbi-julie-schonfeld/israel-conversion-bill-an_b_649513.html:2k7fts1c">Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Boston federation, and others.

To learn more, check the coverage in JTA, including the Fundermentalist blog, the Associated Press, and the New York Jewish Week.

“Does this make me look fat?” asked the Minister.

I came across the blog Beauty Tips for Ministers thanks to a link from JewishBoston.com. It gave me a good laugh. Rev. Victoria “Vicki” Weinstein writes it under the name PeaceBang. While the blog is entertaining, what I found even more interesting was that Rev. Weinstein, a Universalist Unitarian minister,  is the child of an interfaith family. According to a Boston Globe  article, she is the daughter of a Jewish father and Russian Orthodox mother. She was raised Unitarian because the Unitarians welcomed her parents. Maybe we would have had one more really cool rabbi had her family been welcomed into a synagogue.

It’s an interesting link to the issue of welcoming. If you’ve been following our blog posts on the issue you’ll know that this is a heated topic in the “Jewish interfaith outreach world”. If you are not in the “Jewish interfaith outreach world”, the idea of welcoming people into a religious community may just be  good manners. No one wants to feel unwelcomed, let alone made to feel like an outsider once they have been told to come on in. At InterfaithFamily.com, we hear all kinds of stories from people who have had negative interactions with clergy, professionals and lay people ­ from a receptionist telling a woman who came in to sign her children up for Hebrew school but whose last name did not sound Jewish, “did she know that this was a JEWISH synagogue,” to a rabbi asking a long term Jewish congregant who was intermarried and whose parent had passed away “was she going to sit shiva [since she was intermarried]” to a non-Jewish spouse who was told he was not allowed to play on the synagogue’s softball team because he wasn’t Jewish.  The Jewish community (as a whole or in parts) needs to work on what it means to be welcoming, but as individuals I think we need to work on our manners and common sense.

Will Chelsea Clinton Have a Jewish Wedding… Part 3

The media is abuzz again about Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding to Marc Mezvinsky. It’s now been reported that the nuptials will take place on July 31 at Astor Courts in Rhinebeck, New York. But apparently no one in the press knows who will be officiating at the wedding.

The overall fascination with celebrities in our culture is another subject, but there certainly is incredible fascination with this wedding in the Jewish community. Back in November we had an early blog post as soon as the engagement was announced, followed by a longer post on the subject of rabbinic officiation, under the title “Chelsea Clinton may not need help finding a rabbi for her wedding, but…” The traffic to our website was the highest we’ve had in our recent history, with more than twice as many visits as our usual highest days.

Then in March, we were featured in a widely-republished Associated Press story by Rachel Zoll,  Is a Jewish Wedding Ahead for Chelsea Clinton, that was also picked up by the chupah">Jewish Telegraphic Agency. We decided to start a discussion board: Should Chelsea Clinton have a Jewish wedding? What kind? Who should officiate?

All of this is prelude to the latest – a long post on Sunday July 11 on Politics Daily by religion reporter David Gibson:  Will Chelsea Clinton Convert? Jews Wonder — and Ponder the Implications.
The post is interesting, not because it highlights the “lively discussion” on our site, but  because Gibson, himself a Catholic, takes the occasion to provide a short review of the Jewish community’s overall response to intermarriage. He starts by saying that the usual level of interest in the issue is magnified: “Yet this being the Clintons, and the religion in question being Judaism, the interfaith angst is taking on a significance far beyond that of the usual family tsuris over such matters.” After reviewing a number of different issues, Gibson concludes that “’official Judaism’ is taking steps to adapt” and refers to “a growing body of research that indicates welcoming a non-Jewish spouse can benefit Judaism in the long run.” He quotes Rabbi Lester Frazin’s comment on our discussion board about why he changed his position and started officiating at weddings of interfaith couples: “I have found in my career that you attract more people through compassionate acceptance than obstinate refusal.” Gibson’s take on the issues is well worth reading.

There’s an interesting discussion of Gibson’s post from Rabbi Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi I recently “met” when we were featured on a web chat hosted by the Detroit Free Press. Rabbi Miller lists a range of issues that the wedding brings up, including whether observant Conservative and Orthodox Jews won’t be able to attend a wedding on July 31, a Saturday (although we don’t know the time of the wedding, as far as I know). He also quotes Rabbi Irwin Kula for a trenchant as usual observation that “This is great article for studying just about every pathology in American Jewish life… an entire article on intermarriage and Jewish weddings all about its threat and not one sentence on the possible meaning of the ritual that might actually create meaning and value. It’s chuppah/Jewish wedding as tribal marker and intermarriage as either threat to the tribe or grudging opportunity to increase numbers. Why should Chelsea convert? To make sure we don’t lose her kids to our tribe so worried about our size!”

The title of Gibson’s post doesn’t exactly fit because there’s not much in the post about whether Chelsea Clinton will convert – a subject that we never raised. There’s more emphasis on “the idea of Jewish pride at one of the tribe finding a catch such as Chelsea Clinton” that he attributes to our friend Julie Wiener.  He quotes Samuel Heilman as saying “most American Jews will be looking for some nod to Judaism not being second class at the wedding – a chuppah, the crushing of a glass under the groom’s heel, maybe a yarmulke here or there.” But we’re still wondering – and hoping – that the couple will have decided that they want to have a Jewish wedding, with a rabbi officiating.

Why Intermarrieds Stay Away

There’s a new article coming out in the Forward by Gal Beckerman,  New Study Finds That It’s Not a Lack of Welcome That’s Keeping the Intermarrieds Away.

Beckerman starts by saying that “the guiding principle” of organizations like InterfaithFamily.com and the Jewish Outreach Institute is to “be more welcoming.” Then Beckerman says that Steven M. Cohen in a recent study for the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that most interfaith couples feel like that have an open invitation to be part of Jewish life. Cohen is quoted as saying that outreach “has been misguided by focusing simply on being welcoming” and that “the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried, and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.” He suggests that there is a competence barrier, that the couple does not have access to what is going on once they are in a synagogue, that they need not open arms but a helping hand.

Encouraging Jewish communities to be more welcoming is only one part of InterfaithFamily.com’s strategy. We have a theory of change that posits that interfaith couples will engage in Jewish life if they are attracted to it, if they feel knowledgeable about it, if they can reconcile the other religious tradition in their family – and if they experience welcome in Jewish settings. In short – there is a need for the community to be welcoming, and there is a need to help interfaith couples feel competent.

The notion that interfaith couples don’t feel unwelcome in Jewish settings simply does not recognize reality. Belittling being welcoming as a matter of having smiling ushers may explain why Cohen doesn’t “get it.” Being welcoming is much more than that. Sylvia Barack Fishman chimes in with a particularly insulting comment. She suggests that outreach leaders focus on overcoming stigma because they are intermarried themselves and had to overcome uncomfortable stares in an earlier era, decades ago, no longer relevant.

I’ve got news for you Sylvia, and Steven: there is still a tremendous need for improvement in the welcoming department. I just watched the video of a focus group that IFF’s marketing communications consultants conducted last week. People said they didn’t feel welcomed when they heard “don’t intermarry” messages, when they felt subtle pressure to convert, when rabbis tell them what they have to do in order to participate, when the first reactions they experience are suspicion and infiltration. The issue of officiation came up a lot; one person said, “rejection stays with you. It turns you off to the synagogue and it turns you off to Judaism.”

At least Cohen says that being welcoming is “a good thing to do.” That’s a start. And his support for providing Jewish education to the intermarried, and “changing our own expectations of new initiates to Jewish life” – that is very positive as well.

I appreciate being quoted in the article for saying that welcoming institutions and increased Jewish literacy are both necessary, and I agree with Kerry Olitzky from JOI that literacy can be addressed but “you have to demonstrate to people… that they are going to be welcomed and embraced, that there are others like them that are part of this community, that they will feel like they belong.”

Another Problematic Article About Intermarriage

The other day I blogged about an article about intermarriage that got a lot of recent attention. Three Jewish women’s non-Jewish husbands didn’t participate in raising their children Jewish. I said it was a sad story, but not typical.

Another article about intermarriage, this one in the Huffington Post, also elicited a lot of comment recently: Interfaith Families: Can You Be Jewish and Christian at the Same Time, by Kate Fridkis. I won’t say this one is sad, but again, it’s not typical, and it’s problematic.

The article starts off with the provocative question, “Can someone identify as a Jew and a Christian simultaneously?” and says that people involved with The Interfaith Community
are doing just that by educating children of interfaith marriages in both Jewish and Christian traditions.

I know and respect Sheila Gordon, the founder of The Interfaith Community, as a serious and well-intentioned person. Sheila persuaded me years ago to list the IFC on InterfaithFamily.com’s Network, even though the Network is primarily meant to connect interfaith families with welcoming Jewish organizations, by contending that the Jewish identity of the Jewish partners was strengthened by their involvement with IFC.

After that InterfaithFamily.com still didn’t want to have much to do with IFC, although our thinking has evolved. We now would be happy to present, to people who gravitate to the IFC’s approach, the Jewish perspective and the model of interfaith families choosing  Jewish identity for their children while learning about and respecting the other religious tradition in the family.

I’m sure that there are some number of interfaith couples for whom the IFC’s approach resonates. At IFF we would not presume to pass judgment on them or suggest they were making a mistake. But educating children in both traditions is not the approach we recommend.

Fridkis writes that “a growing number of people are unwilling to give up their religious tradition just because their partner has a different one.” I question whether she has any data to back up that statement. She may be right that there is a trend in that direction – but I hope she isn’t.

I also question what “giving up a religious tradition” means in this context.  When IFF does holiday surveys, for example, we consistently find that high percentages of couples who are raising their children as Jews participate in Christmas and Easter celebrations, but not as religious holidays involving affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. Have the parents who are not Jewish in those families “given up their religious traditions”? Other than the theological beliefs – no.

I don’t like the imagined conversation Fridkis  scripts in her article. She suggests that most interfaith couples are not observant “so maybe they can just flip a coin” and has the partner who is not Jewish describe Easter as “the most bored I’ve been in my life” and the partner who is Jewish saying “I eat bagels and lox ALL the time, though.” This depiction remains demeaning of interfaith couples even after Fridkis says “OK, so maybe people don’t really talk like that.” I hate to come off as humorless, but it isn’t funny.

The serious point Fridkis makes is the argument that educating children in both traditions allows for “more in-depth future exploration” and leaves them “better prepared to make their own choices.” Here is the brief counter to that: I once heard a young adult woman express the great sadness she felt when her parents left her to pick a religious identity and community – she felt like she was choosing between, not her mother and her father, but between her two grandmothers. And there are numerous personal narratives and “expert” opinions on InterfaithFamily.com to the effect that being grounded in one religious identity and feeling part of one religious community is important for children and young adults.

What motivates the Board and staff of InterfaithFamily.com is the firm belief that engaging in Jewish life can be a source of profound meaning and value for interfaith couples and their children. It’s a shame that Jewish leaders and institutions have neither presented Jewish life in compelling ways nor genuinely welcomed interfaith couples to engage in it. If that were to happen more of the folks who are attracted to the idea of “doing both” might decide that the identity of their family and their children is Jewish while one parent’s is not, and that the non-theological traditions of that parent can still be part of the family’s life.

A Sad Story, But Not Typical

A recent article in Tablet Magazine has elicited a lot of comment:
Private Practice: A group of intermarried Jewish women gather for Shabbat but pack away their identities, by Elizabeth Cohen.

Cohen’s article is very sad. Three Jewish women meet for Shabbat dinner with their young children. Their non-Jewish husbands don’t participate. Turns out that each keeps her Judaica hidden away in a drawer, a box, a cabinet. Turns out they don’t discuss or mention Jewish topics with their significant others. The “cancellation [of Judaism] through silence and storage.” A grim picture.

But wait – all of their children are “enrolled in the same Jewish day school. Their Hebrew is impeccable. Their understanding of Torah … is profound for grade-schoolers. And it was they who led our Shabbat, singing prayers aloud, blessings as second nature as those their grandparents uttered.”

For me, this article doesn’t hang together. Sending children to Jewish day school is an expensive and serious commitment to Jewish life. Some of the comments on the article also question whether there are other issues in the relationships or the personalities of the author and her friends.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at InterfaithFamily.com, it’s that every family is different, but there are patterns. I’m sure there are families where the partners who are not Jewish don’t participate in the Jewish life of their partner and children. From my point of view that is an unfortunate situation. But I wouldn’t want this article to be taken for more than it is, as representative of intermarriage in general. Some of the comments  on the article would do just that – one suggests that the article be required reading in every Hillel. As Cohen herself recognizes, “It isn’t always like this, of course. There are plenty of mixed marriages where the spouse gets involved, shares the traditions, looks on with something like admiration, maybe even converts.”