Are we trendy?


I’m going to TribeFest, March 6-8 in Las Vegas. We’ll be giving a presentation on interfaith issues and will be set up in the Big Show. We hope to see you there!

Meanwhile, USA Today ran a short article on TribeFest. Which wasn’t a big deal, except I found one part noteworthy:

The event comes at a transitional time for American Judaism, which is grappling with a membership crisis in non-Orthodox congregations and concerns about the high cost of synagogue membership and Jewish day school tuition.

Contributing factors, which are hotly debated among Jews, include the decline of anti-Semitism and accompanying rise of intermarriage, lower birth rates among liberal Jews, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the economic downturn and shifting cultural priorities.

TribeFest is taking an “all of the above” approach, with discussion topics including U.S.-Israel policies, interfaith relationships, homosexuality, female leadership, social media and what it means to be Jewish today.

Given that TribeFest is trying to be hip and cool (see above reference to “Big Show,” which is what they’re calling the exhibition hall) as it reaches out to the “young adult” crowd (ages 22-45), I think it’s interesting that the topic of interfaith  relationships/families is up there with other trendy items like LGBTQ issues (“homosexuality” – really, USA Today?), gender (in)equality and social media.

Is “interfaith” or “intermarriage” or “interdating” trendy?

More Who Is a Jew


A month ago I blogged about the “who is a Jew” questionthat arose from the tragic attack on Gabrielle Giffords. My main point was this:

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.

The Forward issue dated today has two related articles of interest. My former colleague Rabbi Sue Fendrick, in Beyond ‘Yes or No’ Jewishness,
seems to agree with me. She makes the interesting point that the State of Israel recognizes the advantages of distinguishing “Jewish for what purpose?” – the state’s eligibility rules for immigration and for ritual status are different. I loved her statement,

… we gain nothing by ignoring or failing to name the ways that an individual’s Jewishness “counts” – whether they live a Jewish life and identify as a Jew, come from a Jewish family or are “half-Jewish,” or are simply identified by other Jews as being “one of us.” … Simple yes/no definitions of Jewishness are inadequate to the task of naming reality. We need to make room for descriptions that tell us about Jewishness as it is, not obscure its realities and complexities.

Rabbi Andy Bachman, in Patrilineal Promise and Pitfalls, suggests that children raised as Jews who are not considered Jews outside of the Reform movement because their mothers are not Jewish should be taken to the mikveh for conversion by Reform rabbis by the age of Bar of Bat Mitzvah. The problem with that approach is that the Jews who don’t consider those children Jewish, wouldn’t recognize such a conversion if it were under Reform auspices. If Reform conversions were so recognized, I would be in favor of this kind of process, or even of incorporating conversion into a bris or baby naming ceremony. Sadly this is not in the cards.

What They Brought Back


We’re on a bit of a Birthright kick today.

Have you seen this new anthology, What We Brought Back?  Edited by Wayne Hoffman, it’s a collection of essays by folks who have gone on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. And it’s not just a look at what happened during their 10-day trip. Rather, it looks at what was happening in their lives that made them think that a 10-day trip would be a good idea and what’s been happening since they returned.

In other words, we’re looking at the impact:

Where the trip came in their Jewish journeys. Was it a turning point, was it a confirmation, was it a change, was it an about face on their Jewish journeys as young people?

Unsurprisingly, as Birthright accepts all young Jews with at least one Jewish parent, some of the contributors to the book are from interfaith families.  They, along with all of the contributors, wrote personal essay and poems and shared photographs.

One story is of love, conversion and wondering how a Jew by choice feels about claiming a “birthright.” Another reflects on how laughter is a common thread between the Jewish and Catholic sides of a family. A third sets the tone by sharing, with amusement, the difficulty Midwesterners have when they see the author’s name in writing.

An author (performer) familiar to us at is also included, Ruby Marez.  She reflects on her interfaith and interracial background, and what it means in terms of Jewish identity.

Anyway, it’s worth a read. Pick it up.

And if I haven’t convinced you, check out the book reading at Strand Bookstore on Youtube: "> " type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="400" height="325">

(Click for parts 2, 3, and 4.)

Divorce, Interfaith Style


In the past year we’ve had several posts on this blog about the sensationalized Reyes divorce case where the father took the child to church against a court order etc.

Karen Kushner provides a much more sane approach to the whole subject of divorce in interfaith families in a recent interview with Virginia Gilbert, the “Divorce and Parenting Examiner” for Angeles. Some of her points:
• Don’t embrace religion as a way of expressing anger at an ex.
• Children of divorce need stability–and that includes maintaining religious practices and traditions observed when the family was intact.
• Exes can find empathy for each other by separating values and traditions from religious rites.
• A child who is secure in one religious identity should not be barred from participating in celebrations of another parent’s different faith tradition.

There’s lots more in the article, including advice from our friends Arlene Chernow, a URJ outreach specialist, and her husband Eli Chernow, a retired California judge.

More About the Reform/Progressive World


In my post last week about the World Union of Progressive Judaism convention, we highlighted Rabbi Larry Kushner’s presentation and mentioned that our own Karen Kushner spoke at a panel. We’re glad now to make available Karen’s remarks, Accepting the Gift of Interfaith Marriage. Karen is also featured in Dan Pine’s jweekly article, Conference Panel Defines Interfaith for Modern Era.

Remembering Michael Rukin


I am sorry to report that Michael Rukin died on February 18. He was only 70. Michael was an important leader for many organizations including Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (CJP), Hillel and the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. I’m sure much deservedly will be said about him in the days to come. I just want to share my own lasting impression of him.

Back in 2006, CJP released its 2005 demographic study of the Boston Jewish community. A key finding was that 60% of interfaith families in Greater Boston were raising their children as Jews, compared to a national average of 33%. I took the position, including in an op-ed with the URJ’s Kathy Kahn in the Forward, that the 60% rate was a result of CJP’s allocating 1% of its annual spending towards engaging interfaith families in Jewish life.

We have a bulletin board in our office and put a copy of the op-ed on it under a sign that read, “Look what 1% can do!” Michael was at our office around that time and when he saw that sign, he attached a large yellow post-it note on which he wrote, “THINK ABOUT WHAT 10% WOULD DO!” with his initials and the date.

That note, which is still on our bulletin board, sums up for me Michael’s passionate advocacy for our cause. He was a rare bold thinker who understood the importance of vastly increased attention to efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly. For that and many other reasons, he will be sorely missed.

Justin Bieber: Honorary Jew?

Justin felt that if it was something that Jesus would have said, he wanted to say it as well. (-Jewlicious)

We’re talking, of course, about Justin Bieber saying the Shema before each of his concerts.

But the Biebs isn’t Jewish. His mother, a single parent, is an Evangelical Christian. Before concerts, Bieber and his crew would form a prayer circle. His manager, “Scooter” Braun, and his music director, Dan Kanter, are Jewish.

Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, is a single parent and a devout evangelical Christian. She would lead the prayers, which would end, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Scooter, an alumnus of Camp Ramah, along with Bieber’s music director, Dan Kanter, are Jewish; and they decided to add in their own prayer to the circles, the Shema.

If you have a ‘tween girl in your life, or, really, pay attention to the media at all, you know that Bieber’s movie, Never Say Never, opened this weekend. In it,

Bieber is seen reciting the “Shema” prayer in Hebrew prior to the big concert, but the sound is drowned out, and only the most astute listener would be able to figure out what is being said. This scene actually ended up on the “cutting room floor,” but was reinserted into the film at the request of Justin’s mother.

And it’s not just Braun and Kanter reciting it:

By their third pre-concert prayer circle, Justin added his voice to Braun’s and Kanter’s prayer as well. Shocked, Braun asked Justin how he knew the Shema.

Having already cribbed this blog post from Jewlicious rather heavily, I’ll leave you with this final excerpt:

Justin replied that he had looked it up online and memorized it. Justin felt that if it was something that Jesus would have said, he wanted to say it as well. It would also connect him more to his manager. Braun, one of the teen idol’s de facto parents and father figures, explained to him what the prayer meant, the oneness of the Lord, and its centrality to modern Jewish worship. Thus began the tradition of Justin reciting the Shema prior to going on stage. (Of course, one can quibble and argue that in the year zero CE, prayer books were not in use and the order of personal prayers differed from the modern selections and patterns. But who am I to quibble?)


For more on this story, check out these other sources.

And, for fun, check out the Biebs joining forces with Kanter at Kanter’s wedding in Toronto (Oct. 2010):

And, if that wasn’t enough…

Intermarriage Around the Reform/Progressive World


Our friend, and terrific journalist, Sue Fishkoff had a JTA story about the annual convention of the World Union of Progressive Judaism that missed what I think was a more important part of the convention.

The World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) is the association of Reform movements from all over the world. (Outside of the US, Reform Judaism is often called Progressive Judaism, hence the name of the association.) The WUPJ rarely holds its annual meeting in the US, but it did last week in San Francisco.

Sue’s story focuses on how Progressive Jews outside of the US have not adopted the American Reform Jewish movement’s doctrine of patrilineal descent which considers as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who is raised as a Jew. Sue attended a panel discussion on that subject, and reports that other than in the Liberal movement in England and in the former Soviet Union (and one congregation each in Ireland and Holland), no other Diaspora community recognizes patrilineal descent.

I wish Sue had been able to cover the panel discussion at which IFF’s Chief Education Officer, Karen Kushner, and our Advisory Board member, Rosanne Levitt, spoke about the importance of programming to welcome interfaith couples and families. And I wish she had been able to cover the evening session at which Rabbi Lawrence Kushner spoke, because what he had to say presents a compelling case in favor of patrilineal descent and other measures to welcome and include interfaith couples and families in Jewish communities – and not just in the US.

Yes, full disclosure, Rabbi Kushner is Karen Kushner’s husband – but according to the website of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, he is considered “one of the top leaders of  American Reform Jewry” along with Rabbis Eric Yoffie (head of the US Reform movement), David Ellenson (head of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary), and David Saperstein (head of the URJ’s Religious Action Center).

Rabbi Kushner was kind enough to share his remarks, What it Means to Me to Be a Reform Jew, with IFF’s readers. Some of my favorite quotes:

It turns out that “assimilate” has two definitions. The more common, of course, means to dissolve into the local culture. It’s in that sense that our enemies accuse us of being assimilationist. But the reason we’re still here is because the word can also mean, not to disappear, but to deliberately take in something from the outside and make it one’s own. For example: The music business has assimilated hip-hop. And we Reform Jews have assimilated some very beautiful but non-Jewish liberal Western ideas: The equality of women; the normalization of gay people; social justice for everyone, not only Jews. But we didn’t swallow these ideas whole. We received them, we shaped them, we grounded them, we assimilated them. We made them Jewish, we made them mitzvot. That’s what we Reform Jews do; it’s who we are; it may even be why God wants us around.
We have been so terrified a Jew might fall in love with a non-Jew, we forgot that, every year, tens, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews also fall in love with, marry, and have children with Jews. They may not yet be willing or able to become Jews, but they have, with their very lives, thrown in their lot with us. Like it or not, they are members of our extended family. And they deserve an honored place at the table—and maybe even to be counted in the minyans Reform Jews claim they don’t count.
The presence at the table of these potentially new members of our family reminds us that we have something precious. They help us reexamine, deepen, and cherish our own piety. Jews who have chosen Judaism through conversion or, yes, through marrying a Jew and trying to make a Jewish home, free us from ethnocentrism and smugness. These people are not the enemy; they’re a gift.
[It is] the 21st Century and intermarriage is here to stay. The only question before us now is whether or not we will acknowledge social and religious reality and see what, yes, Heaven, wants of us now.

We at IFF are glad that the Kushners and Rosanne Levitt put a positive response to intermarriage on the WUPJ agenda, and we hope the delegates from around the world took in their message and will bring it back to their communities.

Valentines Day 2011


I know that in some parts of the Jewish community, participating in Valentine’s Day is frowned upon, because the Valentine involved was a Christian saint. That made a recent article by Rabbi Everett Gendler Don’t Dismiss the Jewish Origins of Cupid, all the more interesting. For one thing, the Catholic Church declared in 1969 that Valentine’s Day is not a saint’s day. For another, there is a lot of archeological evidence of Cupid’s Jewish character, including appearing above the door of a synagogue. And for another, there is a lot about love in the Hebrew Bible — check out the article to learn more. recently released a survey about, well, love. The take-away lesson, according to Time Magazine, is that men are just as interested in commitment as women. Buried in the Time article was a factoid of more interest to IFF: 83% of men and 62% of women are flexible on their date’s religious beliefs. If you go over to the site itself, you find that only 17% of men and 28% of women must have, or say it is very important to find someone, of the same religion. Of course these are aggregate figures and don’t tell you about particular groups – but it looks like a safe bet this Valentine’s Day that interfaith couples are likely to keep on falling in love.

I hope yours is or was a happy one!

Attitude Antennae


My “attitude antennae” were buzzing this week – because of several notable expressions of attitudes, both negative and positive, about intermarriage.

Neil Steinberg, a writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, took a cheap shot in a column about the Super Bowl TV ad for Groupon that has been widely criticized as insensitive to human rights violations in Tibet. What intermarriage has to do with that, I don’t know, but he does the usual equating intermarriage with assimilation: “Judaism is circling the drain, with Jews shrugging, intermarrying and forgetting to raise their children in the faith…”

That’s what we usually hear from Israel, and there was another example of that this week – a member of the Knesset sponsored “Jewish Identity Day” in which many of the Knesset committee meetings discussed issues relating to Jewish identity, assimilation, intermarriage, and Jewish education. As reported in Arutz Sheva/Israel National News, one Knesset member equates Jewish women marrying Arab men as assimilation and says it can be prevented by intense education.

But this week I also read the most positive comments about intermarriage that I’ve ever seen coming out of Israel. Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and her husband Dr. Elan Ezrachi, an educational consultant, wrote the following in Ha’aretz:

Over the past 30 years, several demographic studies of Jewry in the United States have been published. For many years the dominant line was that mixed marriages were a disaster that would lead to a decline in the number of Jews. There is, however, another view that sees connections between Jews and non-Jews as in fact a possibility for expanding the definitions of identity and enlarging the ranks.

Beyond the demographic hairsplitting, it appears there is a phenomenon of historic dimensions developing there: Instead of fleeing from Judaism, entering Judaism; instead of black and white definitions, “hybrid” definitions that enable surprising connections between Jews and non-Jews. These new definitions are expanding the boundaries of the tribe.

While Judaism in Israel is moving further to the margins and concentrating mainly on whom to push out of the fold – the convert, the foreigner, the half-Jew or the new immigrant serving in the Israel Defense Forces – in American Judaism a dynamic of acceptance, embrace and widening circles is developing. This is another measure of the growing gap between Israeli society and the largest Jewish community in the world.

Finally, Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week feels positive about some gatherings of young Jews in Europe. Acknowledging that the typical view of Europe is “an ageing demographic threatened by intermarriage and assimilation,” he writes that many of the new Jewish start-ups in Europe “deal with intermarriage by, in a sense, ignoring it. Their programs tend to be open to everyone.”

Barbara Spectre, the American-born director of  Paideia, refers to what is happening in Europe as “the dis-assimilation” of Jewish life, with even young people who are intermarried or not considered Jewish by halachic standards asserting their identity and exploring Jewish roots and culture. She calls for a change in “rhetoric and attitude” among Israeli and American Jewish leaders who refuse to “hear good news” about what she sees as “a great transformation taking place.”