Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Happy Hanukkah! I don’t know about you, but I am already wondering if there is any way, when I make latkes this weekend, to avoid making the entire house smell like a fryolator for several days. Do you have any suggestions?
This year I have to make a double batch. Every year we help my wife’s college roommate and her husband, among our oldest and dearest friends, decorate their Christmas tree (neither are Jewish); our gathering is early this year, so I’ll be bringing latkes to them (they love it when it’s Hanukkah so we can light our menorah with their family). The next batch is for our annual Hanukkah gathering with my parents (who are now 93 and 92, still living on their own) in Connecticut. This year I may try some latkes made of both potatoes and butternut squash. We have a lot of great recipes to choose from on the site.
I am really pleased this year with InterfaithFamily.com’s first in-house produced video,Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah. One of our long-range goals is to provide a comprehensive set of introductory “how-to-do-Jewish” resources, and we know that many people prefer to learn from video rather than or in addition to text. We hope this will be one of the first of many helpful videos. Benjamin Maron, our new managing editor, gets the writer/director/producer credit, and we want to especially thank our on-screen talent, our good friend from JewishBoston.com Liz Polay-Wettengel, and her family. They should be movie stars!
I’m also pleased that we have a new article by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, who has also made a series of videos for us, “Rabbi Reuben’s Ruminations,” professionally produced by the Jewish Television Network. I’m happy about it because there are people who say that the meaning of Hanukkah is antithetical to welcoming interfaith families to Jewish life and community. They say that Hanukkah commemorates a rebellion by the Jews against assimilation into the Hellenistic Greek society that surrounded them – and they make the common mistake of equating intermarriage with assimilation. Rabbi Reuben explains that “Jewish civilization represents a value system that declares to every single individual human being on earth, that what they say matters, and what they do matters, and who they are matters.” The Jews were resisting assimilation into a culture where “the only rule that mattered was that whoever had the most power and carried the biggest club got to make the rules,…” a culture of bigotry and prejudice based on “might makes right.” He concludes,
Light the lights this year with pride as we continue to stand for the enduring values that celebrate the fundamental spiritual worth of every human spirit. That is why Hanukkah continues to matter.
That’s hardly a message that is antithetical to embracing interfaith families.
Finally, we do two surveys a year, around Hanukkah and Christmas, and again around Passover and Easter. We just released the report on our seventh December Holidays Survey. Cathy Grossman blogged about our survey on her Faith & Reason blog on USAToday.com. I really respect Cathy’s writing but I’m not sure I agree with her take on our survey results this year.
Our holiday surveys have consistently focused on interfaith families that are raising their children as Jews, to illuminate how such families deal with potential conflict between Hanukkah and Christmas, and how they participate in Christmas celebrations at all. Over the years almost all of these families celebrate Hanukkah, and about half have a Christmas tree in their own home. An extremely small percentage, as low as 1%, “tell the Christmas story” – which of course is fundamentally religious in nature, and in comments our survey respondents say that Christmas doesn’t have religious significance to them, it is just a warm family time with traditions from the parent who is not Jewish. Kind of like Thanksgiving is a warm family time that isn’t religious.
The surveys have consistently shown a higher percentage of respondents who treat Hanukkah as a religious holiday. This year, for example, 55% said they would tell the Hanukkah story. When asked to rate the religious or secular nature of their holiday participation, 23% said their Hanukkah celebrations were religious and 28% said they were secular (49% said half and half), vs. 2% who said their Christmas celebrations were religious and 89% who said they were secular (only 9% said half and half). We did note in a press release that there was an increase this year from 20% to 28% who said their Hanukkah celebrations were secular, and that is what Cathy zeroes in on in her blog post.
But there was another finding noted in our press release suggesting a different trend. We saw in increase in the percentage who said they would celebrate Hanukkah in the synagogue this year, from 62% last year to 71% this year. So I don’t think it’s quite fair to suggest that the prevailing way that interfaith families raising Jewish children celebrate Hanukkah is in a secular way without religious significance. What do you think?
It’s Thanksgiving 2010. I have a lot of good fortune in my life and I try to be very grateful. That goes for my work at InterfaithFamily.com, too, but this year I’m not sure how thankful I feel. It has to do with Jewish attitudes towards intermarriage and whether they are changing and will change for the better. It’s related to my presentation at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Federations of North America, and to media reports since.
One of the most important books I’ve read is Ron Heifitz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers. I read it in one of my best classes at the Hornstein Program, organizational behavior taught by Susan Shevitz. His thesis is that the job of leadership is to move people to adapt their attitudes in significant ways.
What I tried to convey in my presentation is that every Jewish community could and should extend explicit welcoming messages to interfaith families, and could and should offer relatively low cost programs and services that will attract and engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. But the real question was, why don’t Jewish communities do that? Why do Jewish funders allocate less than 1/10 of 1% of their total spending to engaging interfaith families?
I believe it’s because Jews and Jewish leaders view intermarriage as bad, as something negative, or at best, with ambivalence. Whether it’s because of tribalism, or because of flawed research that suggests that intermarried couples because of the fact of the intermarriage are and will be less Jewishly engaged, or because of misguided views that intermarriage can be prevented or reduced – whatever the source, too many Jews and Jewish leaders, in the words of one of IFF’s users, can’t resist saying that intermarriage is “bad bad bad.” One of the primary goals of InterfaithFamily.com’s work is to move Jews to adapt from that attitude, towards seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.
The GA presentation was structured as initial remarks by me and then by Steven M. Cohen, followed by responses from three top federations executives. Now Steven M. Cohen is the sociologist most associated with the survey reports that conclude that intermarriage leads to much less Jewish attitudes and behaviors. Even though I think he has made a lot of progress over the years, and now says that he supports more funding for engaging interfaith families, and that he doesn’t want to alienate interfaith families – still, when he made his remarks, it was like he couldn’t control himself from his default position that intermarriage is “bad bad bad.”
Cohen repeated his severe critique of the Boston federation’s report that showed that the 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews were much like in-married Reform Jews in their attitudes and behaviors. He recited a litany of comparisons where they fall short of their in-married counterparts – all while studiously avoiding any comparisons where they “score” ahead. You would never ever know, listening to Steven Cohen, that interfaith families raising Jewish children in Boston actually light Shabbat candles more than in-married Reform of Conservative families do.
There was a little moment of drama at the end of the session. I think Steven could sense that the last question had been asked. He took the mic and recited another litany, of things like Jewish summer camps, day schools, Israel trips, social networks that get young Jews together – and said that these steps could or would prevent or reduce intermarriage. I kind of grabbed the mic and said, we don’t have to promote those things as preventing intermarriage, we can promote them as building strong Jewish identity and desire to have Jewish families and children. There was a smattering of applause at that point, and the program ended.
That was really my point: Jews and Jewish leaders should stop talking about intermarriage as bad; they should promote Jewish experiences not as preventing intermarriage but as building identity and desire to have Jewish families; they should encourage young adults to choose partners who will support their Jewish engagement – whether or not the partner is a Jew.
The room was packed. I estimate there were over 200 people there — at 8:15 am! Several people came up and said very positive things to me afterwards, but it’s hard to gauge overall reaction. I heard indirectly that one of the federation executives on the panel told one of his donors that he had been sensitized that it is a problem to say that in-marriage, rather than strong Jewish identity, is the goal. To that extent, the program was a great success, and I’m thankful for that. If others felt that way, I’d be even more thankful.
I didn’t make good notes of the three federation executives’ remarks. Barry Shrage, the head of the Boston federation, basically said that saying don’t intermarry and fearing intermarriage won’t work, that we need to address interfaith couples with positive messages. Steve Rakitt, the head of the Atlanta federation, said the message should be to promote positive Jewish identity, and talked about the Pathways program to engage interfaith families that the Atlanta federation funds. The Boston and Atlanta federations are the only two that allocate any significant funding to programs to engage interfaith families. I’m thankful for that, but if more federations would follow suit, I’d be even more thankful.
Jay Sanderson, head of the Los Angeles federation, seemed to say that welcoming interfaith families wasn’t the right issue to be talking about – he said that we need to be welcoming everyone. My response was that yes, it’s important to be welcoming to everyone, but we need to have some services and programs that specifically address the unique needs of interfaith couples and families. Even after this session, my feeling is still that federation executives would just as soon not talk expressly and explicitly about engaging interfaith families.
I hope you will be able to evaluate the session for yourself. It was filmed by Shalom TV and their founder told me afterwards that it would be on their site, but it hasn’t appeared yet and I’m starting to wonder if it ever will. You can read my complete remarks on our site, and a shortened version on the Huffington Post and on eJewish Philanthropy.
So I got back from the GA and there was a spate of news stories coming out of Israel. On November 16 the Jerusalem Post reported that the Knesset held a special session on assimilation in the Diaspora and a new study showed high rates of intermarriage in the Diaspora. As usual, the Israeli view was to equate intermarriage with assimilation, the loss of Jewish identity and engagement. I’ve tried in the past to explain What Israelis Should Know About Intermarriage in North America – but it doesn’t feel like many are getting the message there. I’d be more thankful if they did.
On November 17, Alan Dershowitz was interviewed about his new novel that includes a romance between an Arab man and a Jewish woman. The interviewer from The Jewish Press, which is by its own admission mostly for Orthodox readers, says, “Intermarriage is generally thought of as one of the worst sins a Jew can commit” and asks why he protrayed the interfaith romance. Dershowitz gave what I consider a bad answer:
I don’t think I portray it in a positive light. I think I portray it realistically. I portray it the way I see it among my students. I’m trying to be descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m not suggesting it’s a good thing. I don’t support it. But I see it all around me. The other night I spoke at a Chabad Shabbat dinner at Harvard, and a lot of the students came with non-Jewish girlfriends and spouses. Many of them will eventually convert to Judaism but we’re going through a very challenging period now with intermarriage. I can’t ignore that in my writing.
I would have been thankful if he instead had said, “I don’t accept your question – most young Jews today do not consider intermarraige to be a sin. The other night I spoke at a Chabad Shabbat dinner at Harvard, and a lot of the students came with non-Jewish girlfriends and spouses. That just goes to show that young Jews feel that they can live Jewishly with non-Jewish partners – isn’t that great! That’s what we should hope will happen.”
I don’t want to overlook the more positive news and views. On November 18, there was a wonderful short piece in the Jewish Exponent by our friend Gari Weilbacher, the managing director of Interfaithways in Philadelphia, with yet another story of Jewish engagement in an intermarriage. On November 21, Sue Fishkoff reported that the Conservative movement is tipping towards openness to the children of intermarried couples. And on November 23, the Connecticut Jewish Ledger interviewed sociologist Arnold Dashefsky, who said:
On one hand, intermarriage could be a boon to the Jewish population. If the non-Jewish spouse decides to become Jewish or if the couple raises its children as Jews, they might actually increase the Jewish population. … [T]here is a portion of the Jewish population that is intermarried that is also committed to living a Jewish life, even if the spouse hasn’t converted. In our interviews – and I stress that they do not constitute a representative sample of all intermarried couples – in many dimensions, some couples had Jewish behaviors similar to or exceeding the larger Jewish population. In [some] areas – synagogue membership, lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles, participating in a Passover seder – intermarried couples actually exceeded the American Jewish population as a whole… Fasting on Yom Kippur was identical among the two samples…. We believe that the Jewish community should offer encouragement to those members of intermarried couples who wish to affirm their Jewish identity and give the non-Jewish spouses support and recognition that this is something they want to share in.
I would be thankful if more sociologists talked about intermarriage like Dashefsky did.
How thankful do you think I should feel? Am I right to feel that there hasn’t been enough progress fast enough towards a positive attitude that sees intermarriage as an opportunity for Jewish engagement? Or is there progress that I’m not seeing and is it happening as fast as reasonably could be expected?
Either way, I hope you have a good and thankful Thanksgiving.
Recently, Israel created civil unions as a marriage option. However, they’re only an option if neither partner is Jewish. Which means that, for the first time in Israel, people without religious affiliation can get married.
According to the Jerusalem Post, civil unions have
…given rise to a worrying push, led by Knesset Law Committee Chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), to extend the right to a civil marriage to all Israelis, regardless of religious affiliation – thus potentially making Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, a facilitator of intermarriage.
Currently, Israelis intermarry by getting married abroad (often in Cyprus) then returning to Israel.
In a country that has government-backed (and funded) Orthodoxy as the norm, is there a way to modernize marriage? Is there a way to accept intermarriage? Would ending the Orthodox-controlled chief rabbinate’s authority over marriage in Israel be a realistic solution?
And while we’re on the topic of marriage in Israel… We were recently contacted by a graduate student who is doing research in Israel for their Master’s thesis at the University of Zürich, Switzerland in Social Anthropology and Political Science. The research is on inter-religious/inter-ethnic couples living in Israel — where one partner is Jewish Israeli and the other is Arab Palestinian (Muslim or Christian). If you are in such a couple, or know folks who are, and would be interested in helping out in this unique study, please [firstname.lastname@example.org]contact us[/email] and we will put you in touch with the researcher.
A couple recent articles relating to Jewish life-cycle events caught my eye.
Manhattan lawyer [Epstein] recently asked New York federal judge Kimba Wood to grant him a day’s reprieve in a criminal trial to attend the bris of his grandson. Epstein’s daughter has not yet given birth — so he doesn’t yet know the sex of the baby. But Epstein wanted to give Judge Wood ample notice to consider his request, given that his daughter’s due date is Dec. 3, smack in the middle of the scheduled trial.
I then learned of virtual
If dating, shopping and watching TV can be revolutionized by the Internet, why should bar and bat mitzvahs be immune? Parents who once might have turned to their local synagogue for Hebrew lessons and spiritual guidance are now turning to Google…
It was interesting but it’s too bad that they focused on the downside of group learning – or highlighted the ease of individual learning. Learning with others (chavruta especially) holds many benefits for both religious and secular studies.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that our clergy referral service isn’t just for weddings – we can direct you to clergy for all life cycle events, from a baby naming or bris to bar or bat mitzvah to weddings and funerals.
I didn’t think the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky would be eclipsed so soon, but here comes the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton. People everywhere are just fascinated by the British royal family. Through our lens here at InterfaithFamily.com, we can’t help but focus on the “intermarriage” aspect of the relationship. No, Kate Middleton isn’t Jewish – now wouldn’t that be an interesting situation! – but she is a “commoner” and, well, you can’t be much more “royal” than William, the future King of England.
The Jewish community’s response to interfaith marriages might take a lesson or two from the British aristrocracy’s response to its own kind of mixed marriage. Their attitudes have certainly adapted over the years towards a welcoming approach. It isn’t all that long ago that King Edward VIII was forced to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a commoner (and divorcee to boot). But Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles have publicly expressed their complete delight with Prince William’s choice.
The British don’t have any qualms about the status of the children of a royal-commoner marriage: any child of William and Kate will be not merely royal, but, well, the heir to the throne. That goes further than the Reform movement’s approach, where a child of an interfaith marriage is at least presumptively potentially Jewish if raised Jewish.
The British also make it easy for someone marrying in to acquire royal status. I’m no expert on this. I’m not sure if by reason of the marriage, Kate becomes a Duchess or a Princess, or that happens by the Queen just conferring that status on her. Either way, she becomes part of the royal family. It would be nice if the Jewish community considered our partners who aren’t Jewish part of the family in the same easy way.
The press has focused on how solicitous William has been of Kate. After all, he’s lived his entire life with what I’m sure are peculiar or at least particular “rituals” of the royal family, and she’ll have to get used to all of that. William reportedly promised her father that he would help her to adjust. Wouldn’t it be great if the Jewish partners in interfaith couples took the same kind of approach with respect to sharing Jewish traditions with their partners?
Here at InterfaithFamily.com we’re positive about the potential for couples from different backgrounds to build fulfilling lives together and to decide to affiliate their family with the tradition of one partner while honoring and respecting the tradition of the other. We’re happy to see that at least at the outset, it looks like Prince William and Kate Middleton have a good chance of doing just that. So we’ll send them an early mazel tov!
There’s been a lot going on around here lately, and I haven’t had a chance to give you all a proper blog post. To tide you over, a quick roundup of interfaith goings on!
Andi Rosenthal, frequent writer for us at IFF, has her first book out. Check out a review of The Bookseller’s Sonnets.
A local cemetery is expanding to “accommodate interfaith families” – their want for non-Jewish partners and family members to be buried alongside their Jewish family members. Is this a growing trend?
Julie Wiener wonders if “it is possible to welcome interfaith families while at the same time encouraging in-marriage.” And is looking for your stories.
Hello InterfaithFamily.com readers,
InterfaithFamily.com’s Network is beginning to help market two of the Limmud conferences in the United States. There are actually 40 Limmud conferences around the world every year. Limmuds are volunteer communities which come together, for a day to a week, to be a Jewish community and celebrate Judaism through learning. They are open to individuals, couples and families. And Limmud has special programming for children!
I have been in touch with the planning committees at LimmudNY and Limmud Chicago and they want to be sure that their conferences are welcoming to interfaith families and the children of interfaith families.
LimmudNY is over Martin Luther King weekend, January 14-17, and is offering InterfaithFamily.com readers and Network members a discounted rate. To learn more, please click here.
If you are interested in attending LimmudNY and taking advantage of the discount, please contact me at email@example.com.
Limmud Chicago is on March 27th and we will be telling you more about that one as it gets closer.
If you’re like me, the closest you got to the General Assembly in New Orleans was your twitter feed. I knew when our CEO, Ed Case, took the stage because the tweets became about interfaith families. Great!
So if you’re curious to hear what was said about interfaith families, interfaith inclusion, at the largest gathering of the North American Jewish community, look no further. We have a copy of Ed’s remarks here, just for you.
Let us know what you think!
Guest post by Mamie Kanfer Stewart
You may know that founding InterfaithFamily.com as an independent non-profit was the brilliant idea of its CEO, Ed Case. But did you know that Ed had a 22 year career in law before he decided to focus full time on interfaith issues? We never know where good ideas come from, but we do know that unless you do something about it, nothing will ever happen. We have all benefited from Ed’s work and the incredible resources available through InterfaithFamily.com, so lets take a moment to thank Ed for acting on his idea, taking a risk and working so hard to make the Jewish community more inclusive.
Now its your turn to act on an idea that will change our community. PresenTense Group (www.presentense.org) runs 7 Fellowships in 6 cities, through which they provide tools and community support so that anyone can turn an idea or early stage program into a sustainable venture. PresenTense is currently seeking applicants for the NYC Fellowship. So if you live in the NYC area and have an idea for improving the New York Jewish and greater community – through social justice, interfaith work or anything else, this message is for you: Embrace your entrepreneurial side and apply today!
The Boston Jewish Film Festival is underway, running November 3-14. There are a couple screenings of particular interest to interfaith families, or those interested in interfaith and/or intercultural issues. We reviewed a couple already, and are pleased to tell you about another one now.
I Love You Mommy is a stirring documentary about one family’s cross-cultural adoption of their daughter, Faith.
With two biological sons and a daughter previously adopted from China, this American Jewish family is looking to adopt a second daughter. They agree with their children to adopt an older girl so that their daughter can have a big sister. The documentary follows the family as they travel to China, meet their new daughter, Faith, and, over 17 months, go through the struggles of becoming a family together.
If you’re like me, you might have some knowledge of adoption, and might have friends who have adopted children before. None of my friends have adopted older children (Faith is 8 or 9 years old when she’s adopted) who are also from other countries. It was stirring to see Faith’s initial reactions to her new mother (she’s scared, she cries) and to her grandfather (she steps away from him when he approaches and hides behind the adoption agency’s interpreter) — the two family members who traveled to China to get Faith. Watching how her parents react to, and include, cultural differences and celebrations is really refreshing to see, as is Faith’s acclimation to her new culture, family and religion.
It’s amazing to watch her transition, see how the family grows with her, meets her challenges, and welcomes her as a new addition to their family and home.
If you’re in the Boston area, I Love You Mommy is playing on Tuesday, November 9 at 7:00pm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.
I recommend it!