Who Isn’t a Jew?

In the aftermath of the terrible attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, there has been a lot of discussion in the Jewish press about the “who is a Jew” issue. Two and a half weeks ago I blogged that it was a shame that it took a tragedy to get leading Jewish commentators like the editors of the Jerusalem Post to write that a non-halachic but self-identifying Jew like Giffords should not be excluded and that “many ‘non-Jews’ are much more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows.”

Now the editors of the Forward have offered Who Isn’t a Jew? but they don’t give a satisfactory answer. They write that there is a disconnect between religious standards and the people’s behavior: Giffords, who has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, is no more Jewish according to traditional Jewish law than Chelsea Clinton, but is being widely treated as a Jew across the country. The editors say this is cause for cheer, because tolerance and inclusion are good, but also cause for dismay — and that’s where they go wrong. They lament that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families, when the Boston 2005 demographic study concluded that at least in that community, intermarriage was leading to more Jewish families, not less. And they lament the divide on this issue between the Orthodox and everyone else.

There is a solution to the halachic divide. It behooves everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox included, to regard Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew for all purposes except where halachic status matters. Many would say that the entire community benefits from having a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, for example. When halachic status is important, it can be dealt with. A Jew to whom halachic status is important in a marriage partner, for example, can choose not to marry someone who does not measure up to his or her halachic standards, or the non-halachic Jew can convert according to those same standards. It would be a major advance if the idea took hold that the Jewish community consists of Jews who are halachic and who are not halachic and that issues of halachic status could be dealt with when they arise.

Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic. I thought, after last year’s GA, that attitudes were perhaps turning more positive towards intermarriage, but the Forward editorial is a setback. Lamenting that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families and that inclusion may cause the communal tent to collapse is self-fulfilling: young interfaith couples are not going to want to associate with a community that regards them as undermining and destructive. And it certainly won’t encourage those on the traditional end of the spectrum to be more tolerant and inclusive of non-halachic Jews.

Hodge Podge!

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about intermarriage, interfaith Jews and the eternal “who is a Jew” debate. Some of it was spurred by the attack on Rep. Giffords, and the Jewish community’s near unanimous response that, yes, she is Jewish. (See, for example, Julie Wiener’s recent column in The Jewish Week, Is Anyone Jewish Enough?)

But that wasn’t the only source of news this week. So cuddle up with a mug of hot cocoa, stay warm and watch the snowstorms move in while you read another hodge podge:

An article in the Jewish Exponent looked at bullying in the Jewish community, specifically in Jewish schools.

Even if violence is minimal, day school students said that doesn’t make the emotional or mental abuse any easier to bear.

“It’s worse for us because our cliques can’t be based on color or race, so instead, it goes a little bit deeper,” Becca Richman, 16, a junior at Barrack Hebrew Academy, said during a discussion on bullying at an Anti-Defamation League youth leadership conference in late November.

Since everyone shares the same ethnicity, students might discriminate over whether someone is overly observant, not observant enough, from an intermarried family, homosexual, wealthy and so forth, her classmates added.

Read more from Taking Bullying by the Horns to see how the problem is being addressed.

Meanwhile, the religion blog in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, linked to a story on Intermarriage, the law of return and the modern Israeli state. It might be interesting to you to read some of the proposals Israel has for dealing with intermarriage, people who are “Jewish enough” to move to Israel but not “Jewish enough” to be considered Jewish for marriage. (I will add the disclaimer that when I read the line, “One brave exception is Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a member of the Knesset from the Shas political party.” I had to fight the urge to stop reading…)

Now, I wouldn’t normally share an article (Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match) that boasts an OU (Orthodox Union) approved dating site, but I how else would I have learned about intermarriage statistics for the Jewish Deaf community?

In the past, the rate of intermarriage among the deaf was close to 60%.

Another article looking at the “who’s a Jew” question in Israel focuses instead on Y.B., a 23-year-old would-be convert to Judaism (he was raised Jewish, has a non-Jewish mother) who is gay.

The soldier’s experience highlights the plight that gay would-be converts to Judaism face in Israel: Because there is no separation of state and religion, and the state religion is regulated by the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, it is practically impossible for an openly gay person to convert to Judaism. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a would-be convert who rejects a tenet of the Torah — in this case, the prohibition against homosexual intercourse — cannot join the faith.

And:

An IDF spokesman denied that Y.B. was expelled from the course because he is gay.

“The IDF believes that a person’s origin, gender and sexual orientation cannot have an impact on his or her ability to appropriately complete the conversion process,” the spokesman said in response to a JTA query. “The soldier in question chose to leave the course of his own accord because, as he noted, ‘He did not feel ready to complete the conversion process.’ The soldier was clearly informed he could return to the course when he felt ready to do so.”

Y.B. says that during his meeting with conversion course officials, he signed a form saying he was not ready to complete the process only because he was told he could not continue to study if he indeed was gay. The stipulation given for his return would be based on his agreeing to pursue relationships with women, Y.B. says he was told.

Soldier’s story highlights plight facing gay would-be converts in Israel is an interesting read. It made me wonder if there are other cases of soldiers being ousted from converting for not following one of the commandments. Have people been ousted for carrying outside an eruv on Shabbat? For wearing shatnez (fabric containing both wool and linen)?

So that’s some food for thought… Let us know what you think!

Tu Bishvat

Tu Bishvat is just a few days away, a one day holiday starting Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011, at sundown. It’s a minor holiday and, as such, I think it gets lost among the bigger, better known holidays. But there’s a lot to it – and it’s a great way to gather friends and family in your home on a cool winter’s night to remind ourselves that, if nothing else, spring will soon be here.

I feel like there are some basics that could be explained for many of us.

For starters, why are there so many different spellings of the holiday name? I’ve seen Tu B’shvat, T’u B’shvat, Tu Beshvat, Tu Beshevat, and more. On this website, we use Tu Bishvat. Why? Check out Mah Rabu, a great blog, for the explanation.

One of the ways people celebrate Tu Bishvat is by having seders. The Jew and the Carrot explained,

Over the last decade, seders for Tu Bishvat have spiked in popularity. This growth is largely due to the contemporary Jewish community’s interest in “greening” ritual and holidays. Every year, the number of organizations turning to Tu Bishvat to inject some sustainability-awareness into their annual programming grows, as does the collection of environmentally-inspired haggadot for Tu Bishvat available online. (Like this one from My Jewish Learning, this one from Hillel, and this one from Hazon.)

The downside is that some people shy away from celebrating the holiday precisely because it feels too “hippie” or eco-spiritual. But while the Tu Bishvat seder, which was originally developed as a mystical celebration by kabbalists in 16th century Safed, provides a helpful structure for celebrating Tu Bishvat, there are no official rules for the holiday. The lack of halakhic requirements means that seders can be tailored to meet their hosts’ personalities–even if they happen to prefer fine china over bicompostable dishware.

The Seder Structure

Borrowing from Passover’s four cups of wine, the kabbalistic seder for Tu Bishvat is divided into four parts that correspond to four “worlds.” This notion of the importance of the number four repeats itself in multiple ways: through assigning a season and mystical attribute to each world, through drinking four cups of wine, and by dividing the foods eaten during the seder (generally a feast of fruits and nuts) into four categories that reflect human nature. Each of these components attempts to coax another level of contemplative thought, creativity, and wonder from seder participants.

You can also check out this quick video I made, explaining a basic Tu Bishvat seder structure:

The Jew and the Carrot continues, listing example menus for different Tu Bishvat seder types: the hippie, the sophisticate, the newbie, the multi-culturalist and the chocolate lover. Check them out.

You can also check out a few other organizations for their accessible and easy to follow (or adapt) seders: Hillel, My Jewish Learning, Hazon, nfty.org/_kd/Items/actions.cfm?action=Show&item_id=5275&destination=ShowItem:uhj5fnxk">NIFTY (pdf), JOFA or NeoHasid.

Another option, which I’ll be doing this year, is straight from television:

“I’d like to make an impression on those guys. Man, I love the Office Halloween Party. It is so much sluttier than the Office Christmas party. Though, not as freaky as the Office President’s Day Rave. Or the Office Tu Bishvat Pajama Jammy Jam.” – Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother

If, like me, you’re a fan of the show How I Met Your Mother, you might have caught this reference back in October, 2010. My housemate and I were watching when we heard Barney (played by Neil Patrick Harris) mention a Tu Bishvat Pajama Jammy Jam. None of the characters on the show are Jewish, and yet they all just nodded, as if this was a totally normal holiday (and normal way to celebrate it). We knew we had to host our own. So this year, in addition to a seder, we’ll be inviting our friends to show up in their pajamas, we’ll be watching fruit-themed movies (like The Apple and James and the Giant Peach). See? Tu Bishvat really can be celebrated in many ways…

So gather some friends and family and give Tu Bishvat a try this year!

A Shame That It Takes a Tragedy

Yesterday Benjamin Maron put up a blog post about the awful attack on US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Everyone at InterfaithFamily.com, like most people, feels terribly about what happened in Tucson.

The violent incident in itself is not something that we would ordinarily comment about. (My personal view that there should be a huge outcry about gun control isn’t something that is an issue for InterfaithFamily.com either.) If Congresswoman Giffords didn’t have an interfaith family background, we wouldn’t have commented. But she does, and we thought it would be interest to our readers, and in part it was our way of expressing our distress.

The mission of InterfaithFamily.com is to empower people in interfaith relationships to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices. There are so many interfaith couples that are potentially interested in Jewish life, we want to present information that will attract them to give it a try. When a person of celebrity comes from or is in an interfaith relationship and is engaged Jewishly, we want to let our site visitors know, because it may trigger interest or steps in that direction. From all accounts, Gabrielle Giffords is a very wonderful person in the public eye, who came from an interfaith family — her father is Jewish, her mother is not — and was not raised very Jewishly and yet chose to identify Jewishly as an adult. We think it’s important for our readers to know that.

There is another significance to the Giffords story that is very relevant to IFF’s advocacy work for more welcoming of interfaith families by Jewish communities. Thankfully Gabrielle Giffords apparently was not greeted, when she decided to get more Jewishly involved, with an attitude that she was not welcome, she was not “really” Jewish, etc. In that regard, the Jerusalem Post ran a very important editorial yesterday. The Post, not exactly known to be liberal on intermarriage issues, basically says that Giffords should be considered to be a Jew – even though she is not halachically Jewish.

Some of the Post’s language is striking. They say for example that Giffords “actively embraced Judaism” after a 2001 trip to Israel – this about a person who has not converted. They also say that the “broadening definition of Jewishness is not restricted to the Reform movement,“ citing a paper about halachically non-Jewish offspring of intermarried parents not being excluded from Conservative congregations. The editorial concludes:

Is it conceivable to exclude Giffords, another “non-Jew,” who is so unequivocally Jewish? With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of “Who is a Jew?” that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many “non-Jews” are much more Jewish than their “Jewish” fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.

The flip side of IFF’s work trying to attract people in interfaith relationships to Jewish life is that Jewish communities need to welcome them. It’s a shame that it takes a tragedy like this one for leading Jewish commentators to come to that conclusion.

Debbie Friedman z”l

Today’s just not a happy day to be blogging.

On Saturday, while people were hearing news of the Arizona shooting, some of us were saying a mi sheberakh (a traditional Jewish prayer for the sick) for Debbie Friedman, who was quite ill. Then on Sunday, we heard the sad news that Friedman had passed away.

Friedman was best known as a Jewish songwriter, often credited with reinvigorating synagogue music (especially in the Reform movement). Through her music, many people found prayers more accessible and interesting. Friedman could be credited for making Reform Judaism more welcoming to the masses. As BZ wrote on Jewschool, “Her goal was always (as she wrote in the liner notes to Sing Unto God back in 1972) ‘the importance of community involvement in worship’.”

She was among the first to combine Hebrew and English words in liturgical songs. Rabbi Daniel Freeland, Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a 2007 tribute video,

The English tells you exactly what the song is about, what the prayer is about, even if you don’t understand the Hebrew. And she was able to get us to feel comfortable singing Hebrew words because she gave us the English language spiritual overlay – which can be translated into any language. It was a very creative spin, and, frankly, Debbie reintroduced English into the American Reform vocabulary in the 1970s, after it had been totally banished.

(You can watch the full video, embedded below.)

Her impact was so huge, a healing service, put together and held on Sunday at the Manhattan JCC, was not only completely full, but  was streamed online. Several thousand people tuned in to watch it live, and many thousand more have watched it since (and I’m sure many more will do so over the coming days and weeks). You can view the video here; the service starts around the 16:00 minute mark. Unsurprisingly, the service started with one of Friedman’s tunes, with which everyone sang along. As was said in the service, it shifted from a healing service to become an unofficial memorial instead, with the community acting as shomrim (guards), singing her songs with hopes of guarding her soul. (Word of Friedman’s passing spread shortly before this service was scheduled to start.)

You can read the URJ’s statement, an obituary in the Forward or Memories of Debbie Friedman on Jewschool.com. You can also read through #rememberingdebbie tweets or add your own using the #rememberingdebbie hashtag.

The following video was shown as Debbie Friedman was honored with the Alexander M. Schindler Distinguished Service Award at the 2007 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention:

May her memory be for blessing.

Gabrielle Giffords

This weekend, tragedy unfolded when a gunman opened fire in front of a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed and 14 others were wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Giffords was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona state Senate, and then in 2007 became the third Arizona woman ever to serve in Congress. At that time, she also became Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman. Raised in an interfaith family, Giffords didn’t always identify as Jewish.

[Giffords' father], Spencer, married outside his faith. Gloria Giffords is a Christian Scientist. The couple say they always encouraged their children to learn about other religions.

“We were kind of neutral,” Spencer Gifford said. “We let them decide for themselves. That’s what Gabby did.”

When his daughter was a state senator in 2001, she traveled to Israel for the first time with the American Jewish Committee on a trip that turned out to be life-changing.

“It just cemented the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my own personal, spiritual growth. I felt very committed to Judaism,” she said. “Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from.”

Upon returning from Israel, Giffords introduced legislation, which became law, to help protect the claims of Arizonans seeking unpaid benefits under Holocaust-era insurance policies.

On a personal level, she made contact with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of the Reform Jewish Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, and began a deeper exploration of both her faith and heritage. She already was technically considered Jewish since the Reform movement of Judaism says that the child of one Jewish parent, mother or father, is presumed to be Jewish. (Read more in a profile in the Arizona Daily Star of Giffords.)

We find more about Gifford’s Jewish heritage in the Forward:

Giffords’ Jewish roots run deep. As the Forward reported back in 2006, her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, was born Akiba Hornstein. He changed his name, first to Gifford Hornstien and later to Gifford Giffords, apparently to shield himself from anti-Semitism out West.

“I was raised not to really talk about my religious beliefs,” Giffords said, in an interview with Jewish Woman magazine. “Going to Israel was an experience that made me realize there were lots of people out there who shared my beliefs and values and spoke about them openly.”

She is also among five members of Congress to serve on United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

We wish her an easy and fast recovery, while her husband says, “There is little that we can do but pray for those who are struggling,” Giffords included.

Our condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims: Christina Taylor Greene, 9; Dorothy Morris, 76; John Roll, 63, U.S. District Judge; Phyllis Scheck, 79; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Gabe Zimmerman, 30, director of community outreach for Giffords. May their memories be for blessing.