InterfaithFamily.com Welcomes Karen Kushner!

The Board and staff of InterfaithFamily.com are thrilled that Karen Kushner has joined us as Chief Education Officer. We are establishing a presence on the West Coast, with Karen in San Francisco, and want to extend a big and warm welcome to her and tell you about our exciting plans.

This development has been a long time coming. We’ve been talking with Karen for years about the possibility of working together, at least since the May 2007 conference IFF held for outreach professionals. Last fall we started talking with two foundations, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund. They had been among IFF’s first funders, and later funded Karen’s work first with Project Welcome of the Reform movement, and then on her own as the Jewish Welcome Network. Both foundations made “bridge/planning grants” to support Karen’s ongoing work in the Bay Area until June 30, 2010 and to plan for a transition into IFF, and then made generous grants to IFF to enable us to bring her on board. Needless to say we are very grateful to our funders!

We issued a press release back on August 3 and our news has been covered in eJewishPhilanthropy, j the Jewish newsweekly of northern California, the (New York) Jewish Week, and Jacob Berkman’s Fundermentalist blog on JTA.

We think the media has been interested because the last few years have not been a time of growth in Jewish non-profits or in the field of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life. We hope our growth is a sign of positive change!

The reason we felt this combination was a great strategic idea is that Karen has tremendous expertise in precisely the two areas where IFF wants to grow: Jewish education, especially for families with young children, and training of Jewish professionals and organizations on how to attract and engage people in interfaith relationships.

IFF has been recognized by others, most notably the Slingshot guide to innovative Jewish organizations, as the central web address for people in interfaith relationships who are interested in Jewish life. Our strength has been in personal narratives by people in interfaith relationships about how they resolve common issues. We started on our own to develop more “how-to-do-Jewish” resources, most notably our series of eleven Resource Guides, but it was clear to us that we needed to expand these resources based on what we heard from users, including in our 2007 online User Survey. Karen has extensive experience creating exactly these kinds of resources. She is the co-author with Anita Diamant of How To Raise a Jewish Child, and at the Jewish Welcome Network she created a series of booklets that will now be offered by IFF. Our long-term goal is to provide a comprehensive set of text, video and multimedia resources, and online classes designed to respond to the unique perspective of interfaith couples and to support their engagement in Jewish practices. No one is better suited than Karen Kushner to direct this work for IFF.

With respect to training of professionals and organizations, the InterfaithFamily.com Network helps many rabbis and other Jewish professionals publicize their and their organizations’ work with interfaith families; we have a Resource Center for Jewish Clergy that is the only cross-denominational effort to help rabbis work with interfaith couples including on the issue of officiation; and we have a Resource Center for Program Providers (which has never been staffed) designed to support program offerings for people in interfaith relationships. Karen has excellent relationships with rabbis – for example, at the request of the CCAR (the Reform rabbis’ association), she participated in leading sessions at their recent conference. Karen is ideally suited to strengthen the work of the RCJC and will direct the RCPP in offering resources, models, and trainings for Jewish professionals and organizations. We plan to become the central web address, not only for people in interfaith relationships, but also for Jewish organizations and professionals who work with them.

This is definitely a win-win combination. Adding Karen to our staff strengthens IFF’s ability to accomplish our mission to engage interfaith families in welcoming Jewish communities, and expands the reach of Karen’s skills and expertise to our national web based platform. We will be opening a new office in San Francisco, and have added to Bay Area residents, Paul Cohen and Nancy Gennet, to our Board of Directors. We’re in the process of planning an event in San Francisco on October 28 to celebrate!

I hope you will join me in welcoming Karen Kushner to InterfaithFamily.com and I’m sure Karen would love to hear from you – you can reach her at karenk@interfaithfamily.com.

There is Still Work to Be Done on Welcoming Interfaith Families

I’ve blogged previously on a recent report in the Forward that Steven M. Cohen had found, in a study for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, that most interfaith couples feel like that have an open invitation to be part of Jewish life, 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.”

I’m pleased to telll you that eJewishPhilanthropy has published an op-ed by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and me. The title of the op-ed pretty much sums up our argument: There Is Still Work to Be Done on Welcoming Intermarried Families.

Our key points:[list]

[*]* It is a false dichotomy to separate out the “competency barrier” for interfaith families from the way they are welcomed into the community.

[/*]
[*]* Nobody in the outreach community has ever said “all that’s needed is open arms.” There has always been much more to it.

[/*]
[*]*The overwhelming majority of all outreach programming we know of, including our own, are educational in nature, working to address the knowledge barrier as well as other barriers that intermarried families face to deeper Jewish involvement.

[/*]
[*]* As important as education is policy change. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements made a place in the tent for Jews of patrilineal descent. We still must work with the community for other policy changes, for example on issues of burial or membership, which can make the community even more welcoming.[/*][/list]

I was especially pleased to have InterfaithFamily.com and the Jewish Outreach Institute submit an opinion piece jointly and hope there will be more of that in the future.

Amare Stoudemire – Jewish Journey

With Ed out of the office, InterfaithFamily.com was lucky to have Micah Sachs come back as a guest blogger.

When a celebrity declares his desire to get in touch with his Jewish roots, the Jewish community is wary. How serious can Madonna/Lindsey Lohan/Ashton Kutcher be, we wonder—without considering the irony that many of us are not particularly serious about our religion either.

So it’s no surprise that NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire’s recent trip to Israel to seek out his “Hebrew roots” was met with a sense of bemused skepticism, both inside and outside the Jewish community. It doesn’t help that he suggests, but never reveals, the source of his suspicion that his mother had Jewish roots. When pressed about whether he’s Jewish, he responds, “Through history, we all are.” The obsession with wearing a yarmulke on his trip and the Tweeting in basic Hebrew only add to the sense that Stoudemire doesn’t get it.

But what exactly doesn’t he get? That Judaism should not be embraced publicly? That one shouldn’t be vocal about one’s enthusiasm for learning about Judaism? That Jewishness is reserved only for those with Jewish genes? In outsize form (both metaphorically and literally—he is 6-foot-10), Stoudemire’s exploration of Judaism mirrors the experience of many converts, who often encounter skepticism both for their motives and for their practice. His evasiveness about his genetic connection to Judaism is a quiet rebuttal to those who would make Jewish identity contingent on maternity. In his claimed decision to celebrate Shabbat, observe Passover and fast during Yom Kippur (unless there’s a basketball game, in which case, he says, “I’ll have to eat”), he is embracing the most important part of Jewish life: its rituals. It doesn’t matter whether he is a member of a synagogue, or is an officially sanctioned Jew, he’s interested in Judaism purely because of what he feels it offers him spiritually and emotionally. It is an expansive and unorthodox (big and little “o”) approach to Judaism that is espoused by only a few radical voices, like Rabbi Irwin Kula.

Of greater concern from my perspective is how his newfound Judaism fits in with his older professed Christianity. He has a tattoo of the star of David on his left hand, yes, but he also has a tattoo declaring himself “Black Jesus” on his neck. In 2007, he told the Christian sports website “Beyond the Ultimate”:

Even though (my father) died when I was twelve, my mother made sure that Christianity continued to be a central part of my family’s life. That’s why I have such a strong faith today. Going to church helped me develop a relationship with Jesus, and that has given me something to lean on as I have worked to reach my goals.

In none of the articles about Stoudemire’s interest in Judaism does he address the place of Jesus in his belief system. It is certainly possible that his beliefs have changed. But if his beliefs haven’t changed, his exploration of Judaism and adoption of Jewish rituals may make him a Judeophile, but they won’t make him a Jew. 

The Signficance of Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding

In my last blog post, The Jewish World Reacts to the Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding — and It Isn’t Pretty,  I said I was still reflecting on the significance of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, and would have more to say about it.

Well I did reflect on it and I wrote an op-ed and the Forward published it today: The Missing ‘Mazel Tov.’

I would love to quote the entire piece here but please read it on the Forward site. In a nutshell, I think the significance of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is because of their celebrity the way they conducted their wedding could inspire many other interfaith couples to seriously consider incorporating Jewish practices in their weddings – like Chelsea and Marc did so prominently – and hopefully in their lives together after their weddings. In addition, I think it was very fortunate that Chelsea and Marc were able to find a rabbi of the stature of James Ponet to co-officiate the wedding with a Methodist minister.

Instead of an enthusiastic, hearty “Mazel tov,” the reaction of Jewish leaders, as detailed in my last blog post, was to pronounce the wedding as “not a Jewish event.” This was the worst possible response to express, because it can only serve to discourage and push away not just Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, but the thousands of other interfaith couples who are watching.

Because of space limitations, the Forward cut two paragraphs, which I’ll include here:

“There is a serious disconnect between what young couples want and what our religious leaders want to provide. Thirty to 45% of the requests made to InterfaithFamily.com’s Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service are for rabbis who co-officiate. In recent research done for us, rabbis who do not officiate reported overwhelmingly that they are able to successfully tell couples they can’t officiate without alienating them; but interfaith couples emphasized that a rabbis’ refusals to officiate are likely to turn them away from their congregations.”

“JTA quotes Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen as saying that we should celebrate the marriage of these individuals, but not the type of marriage it represents. The head of the Conservative movement said “intermarriage is not ideal” but we “must welcome interfaith families.” This have-it-both-ways response simply won’t cut it with young couples. If you were Chelsea Clinton, considering whether to get more involved in Jewish life, how would you feel?”

I hope you will read the entire piece and welcome your comments and suggestions here.

The Jewish World Reacts to the Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding — and It Isn’t Pretty

It’s been a long week at InterfaithFamily.com, starting with the news last Saturday night that Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky had a rabbi and a minister at their wedding with very evident Jewish traditions. In this post I’m going to try to just summarize the coverage. I’m still reflecting on the significance of it all, and will have more to say about that.

At the beginning of the week the media coverage from the Jewish angle focused on what happens next for newly married interfaith couples. On Monday there was a story on ABCNews.com, Chelsea Clinton’s Interfaith Marriage Challenge: Kids, Holidays, Soul-Searching.The writer, Luchina Fisher, noted that the wedding featured many Jewish traditions: the couple married under a chuppah or canopy; the groom wore a yarmulke or skull cap and tallis or prayer shawl; friends and family recited the Seven Blessings typically read at traditional Jewish weddings. She then quoted me:

“To me that’s an indication that the groom identifies Jewishly,” Edmund Case, the head of InterfaithFamily.com told ABCNews.com. “It’s also apparent that Chelsea must have been fine with it or it wouldn’t have happened. Also, given the prominence of her family, they must have been accepting of it.”

Cathy Grossman also had a story on Monday, Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding reflects mix of religions in USA. Cathy noted,

The website InterfaithFamily.com offers DVDs for a Love and Religion course created by Marion Usher, a marriage and family counselor who has run workshops for interfaith couples for 16 years at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C. DVD sales soared after Usher began offering advice online timed to the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding.

On Tuesday I had a second post on the Huffington Post, where I tried to answer the question,Chelsea Clinton’s Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?.

Later on Tuesday, though, the coverage from the Jewish perspective turned away from what couples like Chelsea and Marc face, and started reporting on negative reactions to the wedding in the Jewish world. Jacob Berkman had a story for JTA, which is starting to be widely re-printed in local Jewish papers:  Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding raises questions about intermarriage. After a great introduction – “Is it possible that the first iconic Jewish picture of the decade is of an interfaith marriage? Photographs taken Saturday show the Jewish groom wearing a yarmulke and a crumpled tallit staring into the eyes of his giddy bride under a traditional Jewish wedding canopy with a framed ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, in the background.” – Jacob starts quoting Jewish leaders expressing ambivalence.

First, Steven M. Cohen tries to have it both ways: “we should celebrate the particular marriage of these two fine individuals, but we ought not celebrate the type of marriage it constitutes and represents.” Then Rabbi Eric Yoffie reportedly told JTA, “The Reform movement frowns upon its rabbis conducting weddings on the Sabbath.” “Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said intermarriage is certainly ‘not ideal,’ but that the Conservative movement in 2008 decided that it must welcome interfaith families and ‘help their spouses along their spiritual journeys.’” At least Rabbi Yoffie also said, “I look at the couple and my response is, ‘I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religion and tradition and second, as a Jew and rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism.”

It was left to me to make an unequivocal statement: “Case said that accepting this marriage and welcoming this intermarried family into the Jewish fold could help pave the way for the Jewish community to be more accepting of others.” I was also quoted as saying that “the Clinton wedding certainly had stirred interest in intermarriage, noting that traffic to his website was up 35 percent in July compared to the same month last year. “

Also on Tuesday, Julie Wiener put up her article that would appear in the New York Jewish Week, which focuses on co-officiation. Julie says that “Even as the number of liberal rabbis willing to preside at weddings of Jews to gentiles appears to be growing, co-officiation with clergy of another faith, while hardly unheard of, remains taboo.” Julie quotes me:

“The mainstream of the Reform rabbinate is not with co-officiation yet,” says Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, which since 2007 has run a free referral service for interfaith couples seeking clergy to officiate at their wedding. Despite the mainstream opposition, 40 percent of the almost 400 rabbis and cantors in IFF’s database (some ordained by the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries, some by nondenominational ones) are willing to co-officiate, and in the past six months 31.5 percent of the approximately 120 couples each month using the service have sought someone to co-officiate. (In 2009, 43 percent of couples contacting IFF were seeking someone to co-officiate.) “I’ve had Reform rabbis say they don’t want to have anything to do with us because our referral service” provides co-officiating rabbis to those couples who want them, Case says.

Julie interviewed Rabbi Ellen Dreyfuss, the president of the Reform rabbis’ association, who said “The rabbi’s presence and officiation at a wedding is reflective of a commitment on the part of the couple to have a Jewish home and a Jewish family, so co-officiation with clergy of another faith does not reflect that commit. It reflects, rather, indecision on the part of the couple… Religiously it’s problematic because [the bride and groom are] trying to create a both and there’s no such thing as a both.” Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, also says that “having a co-officiated ceremony points in the direction of a home that won’t be primarily Jewish.”

As Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of JOI aptly points out, however, “the common assumption is that when a couple wishes a rabbi to co-officiate, the couple is going to bring up the future children in two faiths or the couple has not made a decision…. That’s probably a premature conclusion to make.” And I said, about Rabbi James Ponet, who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, “I think it’s really significant that a highly regarded rabbi would be willing to co-officiate and before Shabbat was over. I think it’s positive too. Maybe it will have some influence.”

Julie gives our own Rabbi Lev Baesh the last word:

Lev Baesh, a Reform rabbi and CCAR member who is the director of InterfaithFamily.com’s resource center for Jewish clergy and oversees the referral service, says he co-officiates because, “My view is that any Jew who wants Jewish ritual in their life should have it.”
Even if a couple hasn’t yet decided whether or not to have a Jewish household, “the wedding is a great opportunity to show Judaism is something that has meaning and value for them.”
The hope is that if they have a good experience, then “down the road” these couples will get more engaged in Jewish life.
“I know that I’m not just hoping this, because I also do a lot of baby namings,” Rabbi Baesh says.

Finally, on Thursday, Allison Gaudet Yarrow at the Forward wrote Wedding Blues: Rabbis At Odds With Their Rules, which again focuses on co-officiation. Yarrow’s summary: “Top leaders from all the major streams of Judaism – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist – were at pains to stress that the Sabbath day nuptials of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky were not a Jewish event.” She quoted me as saying,

In his work with Interfaithfamily.com, which offers, among other things, a clergy referral service, CEO Ed Case sees a disconnect between rabbis who feel they can navigate the interfaith issue without offending interfaith couples and those particular couples’ experience of interacting with rabbis who won’t perform or recognize interfaith unions.
“For better or for worse, what couples want and what lay people want are different than where the rabbinate is. People don’t feel bound by requirements or traditions, and they want to do what they want to do,” he said.
Case hoped interfaith couples would look at the Jewish rituals in the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding and think, “If this is good enough for Chelsea Clinton, it’s good enough for me.”

The News is Out: Co-officiation for Chelsea and Marc

The New York Times reported that Rabbi James Ponet, the Yale Hillel director, and Reverend William Shillady, a Methodist minister, co-officiated at the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky on July 31. According to the Times, at 7:23 p.m. the family made an announcement via e-mail. The Times said that the ceremony “included elements from both traditions: friends and family reading the Seven Blessings, which are typically recited at traditional Jewish weddings following the vows and exchange of rings.” Cathy Grossman, on USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog, reported the story at 8:57 pm, relying on the account in the Times. You can see the first photos, of Chelsea and Marc (with a clearly visible yarmulke, and the couple with the Clintons, here. The Times has a photo of the couple with Marc wearing a tallis

We’ll have more to say in the days to come. Now that the wedding is over, it will be very interesting to see what decisions about religious life this prominent couple makes in the future.