[Guest Post] PresenTense NYC Fellowship

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!

Intercultural Adoption

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!

Chelsea and Marc in the Jewish News Again

Each year the Forward, the only national Jewish newspaper, publishes a list called the “Forward 50” which they describe this year as a list of “men and women who have made a significant impact on the Jewish story in a Jewish way.”

Way back in 2001, I made the list, to my mother’s everlasting pride – she thought it was a list of the fifty most important Jews. I had criticized one of the leading critics of intermarriage as subjectively biased, and I think the Forward staff liked the controversy.

As usual, the list this year is entertaining reading – in particular this year because they added a 51st space, for two people: “Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, high-profile intermarriage.”

If you read this blog you know that we’ve had a lot of comment on the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, starting back when their engagement was announced, continuing with speculation about what kind of officiant they would have, and most recently with comment on the not very enthusiastic reaction of Jewish leaders to their wedding because a rabbi co-officiated with a Methodist minister before Shabbat had ended.

According to the Forward, the wedding “reinvigorated the intermarriage conversation for a new generation of American Jews.” Chelsea’s wedding to “an involved Jew… was a validating first in many ways” referring to the photos of a chuppah, a ketubah, and the groom in a tallis and yarmulke – “The Clintons and Mezvinskys telegraphed to the world that Judaism has nothing to hide.”

In explaining why they went beyond 50, clearly the controversy was again important: Chelsea and Marc are included “For the hot debate this couple caused about who is a Jew and what role nuptials play in religion, for how they captivated the American imagination and energized the conversation around Jewish identity.”

Next week I will be speaking at a session at the Jewish Federation of North America’s annual convention on the question, “Can we encourage in-marriage and welcome interfaith families?” We had a planning call for the session today and the other panelists did not seem thrilled to hear that I plan to bring up the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding in my presentation. But I still feel strongly that the tepid reaction of Jewish leaders missed an opportunity to extend an enthusiastic welcome to a prominent couple that could have helped to inspire many other young couples to consider Jewish traditions for their own weddings and lives together. I’m glad that the Forward has kept the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding in the spotlight.

Young Jewish Leaders Less Concerned About Intermarriage

“Jewish leaders younger than 40 aren’t as bent out of shape about intermarriage as their older colleagues.” That’s how Sue Fishkoff, for the JTA, introduced for blog post about a recent finding in the study Generation of Change: How Leaders in their Twenties and Thirties are Reshaping American Jewish Life.

Fishkoff continued, summarizing the finding as:

In keeping with the millennial generation’s non-exclusivist ideology, these younger Jewish leaders don’t see intermarriage in quite the same light as Jewish leaders over 40 do: “Older establishment leaders tend to view intermarriage as a threat to Jewish life and as a violation of long-standing communal norms. During interviews, younger nonestablishment leaders described intermarriage as an obstacle to Jewish participation, but felt it could be overcome with genuine commitment and involvement. Moreover, they tended to believe that the Jewish community is unwise or not entitled to take a stance on personal choices such as marriage.”

If that is how young Jewish leaders feel, you can imagine how non-leaders feel.

If you want the rundown on the study, but don’t have the time to read through all of it, allow me to offer some highlights:
[list][*] • More than twice as many of the older establishment leaders are very worried about intermarriage (43% to 17%) than younger non-establishment leaders.
[/*]
[*] • “Jewish leaders of all ages and sectors preponderantly oppose the intermarriage of their own offspring, with younger nonestablishment leaders lagging behind others but still half would be upset if a child of theirs would intermarry.”
[/*]
[*] • These young Jewish leaders in their 20′s and 30′s are committed to “creating a particular type of Jewish community, one that helps their peers find meaning in being Jewish and that is welcoming and inclusive.”
[/*]
[*] • These young leaders prefer to avoid us-them distinctions. “For this reason, they claim a fair amount of indifference to intermarriage, and instead want to focus on making Jewish life meaningful, including for their non-Jewish friends, who attend all kinds of Jewish events.” … ”Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, the founder of Encounter, explained why young nonestablishment leaders recoil from ‘us/them’ thinking, observing that they do not wish ‘to be restricted to the tribe,’ desiring instead to ‘identify with other groups, serving other groups, or being in community with other groups.’”[/*]
[*] • “The ways young leaders think about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, their desire to include the latter in programs, and their openness to intermarried Jews suggest a major shift is under way in how Jews think about the boundaries of Jewish life. Indeed, the very notion that there ought to be boundaries may further erode. This trend is likely to deepen the chasm separating the Orthodox from all other types of Jews. For those who are about that divide, serious thought will have to be devoted to bridging those worlds.”[/*][/list]

In other words…

The ways these young leaders think about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, their desire to include the latter in programs, and their openness to intermarried Jews will further erode previously held boundaries of Jewish life. Indeed, the importance of maintaining boundaries between Jews and non-Jews is already being questioned. This new outlook poses particular challenges to some of the denominations, but more generally will require institutions to consider how to approach boundary issues.

It sounds, to me, like this could be a shift in the right direction for all Jews, and their not Jewish friends and family, who are looking for inclusive and welcoming, innovative and meaningful communities.

Welcoming All Jews

My colleague, Heather, sent me a rather… disheartening link today. Seems the folks over at the Yeshiva World News are wondering, “Are the Reform and Conservative Still Jewish?

Working for an organization that largely serves Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews (though we certainly are a resource to some Orthodox too), she wondered what happens when the types of Jews we serve, and non-Jews too, come across discussions like these. Is there a way to let our demographics know that not all Jews are so hateful or judgmental? Is there a way to let those who are new to, or outside, the Jewish community understand that the extreme perspective demonstrated on discussion boards like YWN‘s are not how all Jews feel? (Not to mention that the majority of Jews are Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated, not Orthodox. The Orthodox folks in this conversation need to recognize that the people they are discussing are Jewish and follow a Judaism they hold as real and legitimate, even if some of the Orthodox do not.)

It reminded me of the struggle that the Muslim community has, whether or not they need to constantly distance themselves from Muslim extremists and remind the world that not all Muslims think/feel that way. While those extremists are violent, ours are just exclusionary, which is harder, in some ways, to combat. Do we as progressive Jews need to take up a similar PR campaign? Hang a banner, so to speak, somewhere to remind folks that we’re not all closed-minded and hateful?

So let’s just put it here: We are a welcoming, open, community for all types of Jews!

Interfaith Couples on the BJFF Big Screen

The Boston Jewish Film Festival is right around the corner – November 3-14. There are a couple screenings of particular interest to interfaith families, or those interested in interfaith and/or intercultural issues.

The first is the film Me and the Jewish Thing, a documentary about, and by, Ulrik Gutkin. Through conversations with his wife, Signe, we learn that Ulrik, who is Jewish, and Signe, who is Christian, do not share the same opinion about the need for circumcision. Ulrik, a 4th generation Danish Jew, feels strongly that their son should be circumcised. Signe, however, sees circumcision as a “medieval” act of mutilation and cruelty.

The film covers four years of the couple’s life, spanning from the last weeks of Signe’s pregnancy, through the first few years of their son Felix’s life. Interwoven with Ulrik and Signe’s ongoing debate, we learn about Ulrik’s Jewish history, his attachment to his religion and culture. In addition to questioning the physical purpose of circumcision, Signe wonders why it’s important to Ulrik to become more Jewish, make a film about this Jewish topic, when Judaism wasn’t a big part of Ulrik’s life prior to having kids.

Ulrik struggles to articulate why he feels strongly in favor of circumcising their son. As it becomes clear to him that their son won’t be circumcised, he looks for other ways to impart Judaism on Felix, though he and Signe again feel differently about those efforts.

While this documentary demonstrates a difficult issue that many interfaith couples are faced with, we at InterfaithFamily.com encourage couples to discuss potential conflicts in advance. We have plenty of resources about circumcision, if that’s the specific topic in question; we’re also offering an online group for interfaith couples to learn how to make decisions while still respecting both partner’s religion.

Screening with Me and the Jewish Thing is a short documentary called Michal, Matthias and the Unborn Child. Unlike Ulrik and Signe, Michal, an Israeli Jew, and Matthias, a Christian German, start discussing what their religious life would look like were they to have children together in the future.

They visit a Jewish day school in Berlin, where they live, and meet with another local Jewish Israeli and German couple who are raising their children as Jews. Michal and Matthias are able to see these children, and their father, who is not Jewish, participate fully in lighting the candles, making blessings over the wine, and sharing a Shabbat dinner together.

This process is open, respectful, and proactive. We definitely approve of their early dialogue!

See Ulrik and Signe, Michal and Matthias (along with a third short film, Hasan Everywhere) on Thursday, November 11 at 4:15pm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

Stay tuned for more reviews!

Slingshot, Hero, Online Group, Quite a Week at InterfaithFamily.com

It has been quite a week here at InterfaithFamily.com.

As we reported yesterday, scooped by Julie Wiener in a very nice post, InterfaithFamily.com has once again been included in the Slingshot guide to the fifty most innovative Jewish organizations. We are one of only nine organizations that have been in Slingshot in each of the past six years (see list below).

Even better than being included in the guide, InterfaithFamily.com was one of nine organizations (see list below) to receive $40,000 grants from the Slingshot Fund, which pools contributions from young funders and then makes grants to organizations included in the guide.

InterfaithFamily.com has received a Slingshot Fund grant in three out of the four years that grants have been made. This generous funding is very helpful to our ongoing efforts to expand the reach of our helpful information and welcoming message – and it makes a statement that the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life is important to the next generation of Jewish funders.

We are very grateful to Melissa Brown Eisenberg for her words in announcing the grant to IFF. It means a great deal to all of the staff at IFF to hear this kind of praise for our efforts and to be described as “crucial to the future strength and vitality of the Jewish community:”

Since 2001 InterfaithFamily.com has been the destination for individuals, couples, families and their children seeking information on how to make Jewish choices in their everyday lives.  The website itself is a resource for information-seekers on how to live Jewishly, be married Jewishly, celebrate Jewish holidays and raise Jewish children.  The site also connects interfaith families to each other for support, to local organizations that are inclusionary, and advocates for inclusive attitudes, policies and practices in the wider Jewish community.

With the intermarriage rate hovering at around 50%, the sheer number of non-Jewish partners, spouses and interfaith offspring is too large to ignore.  Our generation, the Slingshot generation, salutes the effort by interfaith families to see themselves as part of the Jewish community.  We believe in the significance of the work InterfaithFamily.com does to keep Judaism in the lives of those who could easily not identify as Jewish.  Between its website, referral services and ability to connect people, we see InterfaithFamily.com’s existence as crucial to the future strength and vitality of the Jewish community. 

Congratulations to Ed Case and the entire InterfaithFamily.com team on receiving a 2010 Slingshot Fund grant.  Ed, you are certainly one of Slingshot’s Jewish Community Heroes.

Melissa’s last comment was a reference to the second big news of the week – I made it into the top twenty vote getters in the Jewish Federations of North America’s Jewish Community Heroes contest. In fact I ended up at number 18, what I hope will turn out to be an auspicious number. Now a panel of judges picks one winner and four honorees, each of whom gets a grant for his or her non-profit.

We made a concerted effort to get out the vote, and I’m very grateful to the people who responded to the many email and Facebook voting reminders and the big orange pop-up on our home page. I hope it wasn’t too annoying – thank you to all for putting up with it. I didn’t seek the nomination and I’m not interested in personal glory – but it surely would be great if the federation world, at its important annual meeting, got a message from first the voters and then the judges that the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life deserves recognition and priority. That’s what I hope the result of the contest is.

We were invited to submit a one-minute video explaining what an award would mean, and if the JFNA makes that publicly available, we’ll provide a link to it.

The last and perhaps most important development of the week isn’t a grant or an award – it’s the debut on Wednesday night of Love and Religion – Online, our first online group for couples to discuss how they can have religion in their lives. Four pioneering couples have signed up for an online version of a workshop Dr. Marion Usher has offered for 16 years at the Washington DC JCC. We had some technical difficulties to work out, but it was a great session.

It was reassuring and reaffirming to me to see bright, articulate, serious, dating or newly-married young couples thinking about important questions in their lives: whether they will be able to find a Jewish religious community where they will feel comfortable and welcomed, how they will incorporate celebrations of holidays, how the partner who is not Jewish will feel about raising Jewish children, how the Jewish partner will feel at his or her partner’s holiday times and religious services.

I have been involved in interfaith family issues for over forty years now, first personally, then as a lay leader in the Reform movement, then professionally for the past thirteen years. I call the issues that the couples in our online group raised this week “eternal” in the sense that every pair of interfaith partners who are interested in having religion in their lives need to address and resolve these questions. They’re not “eternal” in the sense that they never get resolved, but the issues that came up forty years ago are still coming up today. Every community should offer discussion groups for couples to address these issues, and we are really pleased to make the option available on an online basis.

I feel very honored this week because of the Slingshot listing and grant and making it into the Jewish Community Heroes semi-finals, but what was most gratifying about this week was offering another resource that will help interfaith couples learn about and connect with Jewish life and community. That is what I really love about this work.

*  *  *
Organizations included in Slingshot for six straight years in addition to IFF: Advancing Women Professionals, Hazon, Ikar, JDub, Jewish Funds for Justice, Jewish Milestones, Reboot, and Sharsheret.

Organizations that received Slingshot fund grants this year in addition to IFF: JDub, Jewish Funds for Justice, Reboot, Encounter, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, Institute for Curriculum Services, Moishe House, Project Chessed, and Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists.

Slingshot: InterfaithFamily.com Named One of Most Innovative Jewish Nonprofits

InterfaithFamily.com Selected to Receive Capacity Building Grant from Slingshot Fund in Recognition of Innovative Accomplishments

InterfaithFamily.com has been named one of the nation’s 50 most innovative Jewish nonprofits in Slingshot ’10-’11, a resource guide for Jewish innovation. Since 2005, Slingshot has become the definitive guide to identifying path-finding and trailblazing organizations grappling with concerns in Jewish life such as identity, community, tradition, and basic needs. InterfaithFamily.com is also one of only ten organizations to receive a capacity building grant from the Slingshot Fund.

As the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life, InterfaithFamily.com empowers these couples to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices and helps their families embrace the choices they make.

“We are thrilled not only to be included in the Slingshot guide for the sixth straight year, but also to have received our third Slingshot Fund grant,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “This represents a very important statement that the next generation of Jewish funders recognize the importance of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life, a field that has not been significantly funded in the past. This grant, and the additional funding it will help us raise, will enable us to reach many more people with our welcoming and helpful resources.”

According to Will Schneider, the Director of Slingshot, “2010 was the most competitive year that Slingshot has experienced.” Jonathan Raiffe, the Chairman of the Slingshot Fund Committee which set the policies for the Slingshot Fund shares, “The organizations in Slingshot have really challenged my views about what it means to be involved in Jewish non-profits and provide me with a strong sense of pride in my Jewish identity.”

Slingshot ’10/’11 was unveiled on October 18 at the second annual Slingshot Day launch event in Manhattan. Over the years, Slingshot‘s role in the national and international community has increased dramatically, which is evidence of the growing community of innovative nonprofits and the funders who support them.

About Slingshot
Slingshot was created by a team of young funders as a guidebook to help funders of all ages diversify their giving portfolios with the most innovative and effective organizations and programs in North America. This guide contains information about each organization’s origin, mission, strategy, impact and budget, as well as details about its unique character. Now in its sixth edition, Slingshot has proven to be a catalyst for next generation funding and offers a telling snapshot of shifting trends in North America’s Jewish community. The book, published annually, is available in hard copy and as a free download at www.Slingshot.org.

About InterfaithFamily.com
InterfaithFamily.com is the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and the leading web based advocate for attitudes, policies and practices that welcome and embrace them. Visit www.InterfaithFamily.com.

Community Inclusivity

In recent weeks, the Jewish Standard received more publicity than they probably ever expected. And rightly so: they hurt, and excluded  from their newspaper/community, part of our Jewish community.

It’s refreshing to be able to report on another Jewish community newspaper that not only has come out with their inclusive policies but has had their policy since 2004. And it’s also explicitly welcoming and inclusive of interfaith families:

JTNews Editorial policy – Lifecycle announcements:

The mission of JTNews is to be inclusive of the entire Jewish community. Therefore, the policy of the JTNews is to accept marriage, commitment ceremonies, engagement, B’nai Mitzvah, birth and obituary announcements from all couples — including interfaith and same-sex couples — as long as at least one of the members of the couple is Jewish.

While the Jewish community continues to come together, pledging to make ours a more inclusive (and safe) community now, it’s great to see that for some community organizations (ours included), inclusivity has long been the standard.

Julie Wiener, Mayyim Hayyim, Joseph Reyes

I’ve been preoccupied lately with the Jewish Community Heroes voting contest, which ended today. (I think I made it into the top 20 vote getters and am eligible for an award, but more about that another day, after the official results are announced.)

I’m catching up on what’s been published lately and it occurred to me: if there were to be a voting contest on who is the best writer about interfaith family issues today, Julie Wiener should clearly be at or near the top of the list.

Julie has two great blog posts this week. In Harboring Boston Envy, she writes about many of the features that make Boston a great Jewish community (full disclosure – I’m a Boston loyalist), and especially about our wonderfully welcoming community mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim. A great example of Julie’s perceptive sensitivity is this:

More important than the aesthetic is the facility’s warm, welcoming and nonjudgmental approach, with volunteer mikveh guides trained to be sensitive not just to the needs of men and women, liberal and Orthodox Jews, first-timers, converts, grieving Jews, joyous Jews and those about-to-be married (including lesbian and gay couples), but also to interfaith families.
In one of the four preparation rooms hung a beautiful framed photo and certificate of sorts that not only commemorated a family’s conversion of their baby but that explicitly acknowledged that while the baby’s non-Jewish mom is not herself converting, she plans to be supportive of and involved in the child’s Jewish upbringing.

I’ve seen that photo and certificate, it is stunning, and Julie is exactly right about Mayyim Hayyim’s warm, welcoming and nonjudgmental approach.

A Message from Joseph Reyes is about the divorced father who at one point was ordered not to take his daughter to church, raising all kinds of publicity that we covered months ago. Julie writes about a message she received from Mr. Reyes. To me he sounds more than a little paranoid, but her take on the complexities of interfaith divorces is well worth reading.