Conservative Synagogues: a Step in the Right Direction

“Is it so outrageous for us to say that someone who is married to a Jew also has a place within the Jewish community?” asked Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.
This is huge.

An article in the Forward looks at the Conservative movement and its “hostile environment” for intermarried couples and families.

The question of what to do about intermarriage has long bedeviled the Conservative movement. As Jewish rates of intermarriage have climbed over the past few decades, the Reform movement has gained a reputation for openness, recognizing patrilineal descent and allowing rabbis to officiate at mixed marriages. On the other end of the spectrum, the Orthodox movement has disavowed intermarriage as a violation of Jewish law and a threat to Jewish continuity.

Conservative Judaism occupies a murky middle ground. Its Rabbinical Assembly prohibits Conservative rabbis from officiating at interfaith weddings, and even their presence at such a marriage can cause a stir. (Witness the fuss made over the presence of Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the reception after Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in July 2010. Although he is not a rabbi, Eisen had to publicly state that he had not attended the wedding, which had taken place during Shabbat.) When it comes to synagogue policies on welcoming intermarried couples, however, national guidelines are vague, if not completely outdated.

The R.A. is currently revising its policies regarding intermarriage. The last time it took an official position on the subject was in 1988, when it advised Conservative congregations to encourage non-Jewish spouses to participate but not to belong. A non-Jewish partner might be welcome at High Holy Day services, for instance, but he or she would be barred from membership.

So why an article now?

Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue just outside Philadelphia, made a tiny amendment to its constitution: It redefined household membership to apply to families with one Jewish parent as well as those with two.

Though the amendment impacted a small number of intermarried congregants — some 10 families out of a total of 720 — it spelled a philosophical transformation for the congregation that reflects broader changes in the Conservative movement writ large. Faced with the prospect of losing members because of a hostile environment for intermarried couples, Conservative congregations are providing membership opportunities for non-Jewish spouses. But in doing so, they are sometimes placing themselves in opposition to the national Conservative leadership. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the movement’s congregations, opposes membership rights for non-Jews.

Congratulations, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El. I hope other Conservative synagogues take similar first steps. And, let’s hope that this is, in fact, but a first step…

(You know, an easy second step would be to add your synagogue to our Network…)

Read the full article from the Forward here.

Philadelphia: September 19

Do you live in The City of Brotherly Love or nearby? There’s an event happening in a couple weeks that visitors to InterfaithFamily.com might find interesting.

InterFaithways: the Interfaith Family Support Network is hosting an event on Monday, September 19th at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. “From Woody Allen to Ben Stiler: Interfaith Relationships Portrayed in Film” will be preceded by a wine and cheese reception, and followed by a panel discussion.

Honoring the philanthropic and volunteer work of Leonard and Dorothy Wasserman, and everything they’ve done for the Philly community, this is a great reason to go see some movie clips.

See you there!

A Jewish Wedding? (SPOILER ALERT!)

One of my indulgences in my free time is USA shows. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve gotten sucked into Royal Pains and In Plain Sight. They are actually wonderful shows to watch while on the treadmill!

In Plain Sight guest stars Josh Malina as Peter Alpert, whom many people know from the West Wing, as Brandi Shannon’s (Nichole Hiltz) fiancé. Watching the show, I didn’t get much of the religion vibe. During the wedding planning clips, they didn’t talk about a rabbi or priest or minister. There was no talk of what color kippot they should be ordering or whether or not they will be stepping on a glass at the end of the ceremony. It didn’t even occur to me that there would be any elements of a Jewish wedding.

So I was pretty taken aback when in the last episode, “Something Borrowed, Something Blew Up”, Brandi and Peter got married under a chuppah; the groom and guests wore kippot; and there was a very funny exchange between Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack), Brandi’s sister, and Marshall Mann (Fred Weller), Mary’s partner, about the pronunciation of the word “chuppah.”

My guess is, given that Hollywood uses traditional stereotypes to get their point across, the characters named Mary, Brandi and their mother Jinx are not Jewish, making this an interfaith wedding.

Many of us who have been through a wedding with two partners of different faiths know that the structure of the wedding doesn’t just happen. You don’t just end up with a chuppah or kippot or a rabbi the way you end up with hors d’oeuvres before a meal. These things aren’t a given. Knowing that incorporating these elements into a wedding takes conversation, debate, discussion and sometimes even outside intervention to figure out how to get them to work for the couple, InterfaithFamily.com has created our Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples and our Wedding resource page, which compiles all the tips, articles and resources you may need to plan a wedding where only one partner is Jewish.

For those of you who watched the show, Brandi did a Julia Roberts-esque move by running away before the actual ceremony so I never did get a chance to see if a glass was going to be broken!

“Outing” Celebrity Jews as Jews

We’ve seen these articles before, or heard the rumblings from co-workers or friends. “Did you hear that [famous person] is Jewish?” In our own celebrity column, the famous are “outed” as having Jewish ancestors on a fairly regular basis.

Every time another celebrity is surprised with the news that they’re Jewish — Madeleine Albright, Senator George Allen, playwright Tom Stoppard, John Kerry (on his father’s side) — the same series of perplexed shrugs ripple through the media. Did they really never know? What made the Jewish parent turn away? Anyway, what’s the difference? Are you Jewish if you never practiced Judaism? And why is this even in the newspaper?

Good questions. Thanks, Jewish Daily Forward.

The latest new-Jew is Ralph Branca:

Ralph Branca, 85, the onetime Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher best known for throwing the most notorious homerun ball in baseball history, the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” which lost his team the 1951 National League pennant to the New York Giants. A lifelong Catholic, he learned of his mother’s Jewish origins earlier this summer from a journalist who then turned it into a 1,900-word front-page story in the August 15 New York Times. The usual reactions followed: What is he now, a Jewish athlete? Why does anyone care? And why 1,900 words of this trivia in the world’s leading newspaper?

J.J. Goldberg, who wrote Joining the Tribe Late in Life: The Ever-Widening Circle of Celebrity Jews in the Forward, suggests that there are other questions that should be asked, but never are:

Why are there so many such cases? If there are this many among the famous (and this list is very partial), how many more are there who aren’t famous? How many never find out because they’re not famous enough for journalists to poke through their family secrets? Are there any discernable [sic] patterns? Is anyone’s life changed afterward? Can we — should we — learn anything about Jewish life from these dramas?

There are some answers in the article, if you want to click on over.

But I think the other unasked question, of relevance to readers of InterfaithFamily.com, is: if celebrities or other famous people are so readily declared Jews, after their parents turned away from Judaism, or after a couple generations have not practiced Judaism or even known they were Jewish, why aren’t the same standards applied to the rest of us, the non-famous? If Celebrity X can be proclaimed Jewish in the media, a couple generations after their last relative practiced Judaism or identified as a Jew, why can’t Regular Citizen Y get the same treatment? Why are so many descendants of interfaith families struggling to have their Jewish identities acknowledged by the community, when the press seems so willing to hand it over to athletes, politicians and actors?

Goldberg concludes,

What does all this mean? Heaven only knows. And precisely because Heaven only knows, we shouldn’t expect to find all the answers. The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.

I would suggest instead, “The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for those already in our midst and for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.”

Russian Dolls

23-year-old Diana Kosov, who wears a Star of David around her neck, breaks up with her Latino boyfriend, despite her expressed affection for him and his Maserati, after informing him she would only consider marrying a “Russian.”

According to Moses, “In that scene, everyone understands that Diana means she cannot allow herself to marry a non-Jew, but she uses the code word ‘Russian’ in place of ‘Jew’ or ‘Russian Jew’.”

The Jewish Week has an article out about the Brighton Beach (a Brooklyn, New York neighborhood) Jewish, Russian community. Well, the article is really about a new reality tv show called Russian Dolls, which airs on Lifetime. Variety summarizes the show with:

Apparently, “Jersey Shore’s” crimes against culture will include unleashing a torrent of heavily staged reality programs steeped in me-too ethnic stereotyping. Enter “Russian Dolls,” which has the distinction of show-casing the worst Russian accents since the early Bond movies, or back when Boris and Natasha began trying to kill moose and squirrel. Set in Brighton Beach — described by residents as “One square mile of Brooklyn jam-packed with crazy Russians” — it’s a Vodka-infused taste of Lifetime’s desperation to become hipper and get noticed. Will it work? Probably nyet.

Sounds delightful, eh?

So, back to the Jewish Week article, “Too Much Bling in Brighton Beach.” The second half of the article discusses the Jewish identities of the “characters” and intermarriage.

Arguing that as the percentage of Jews in the Russian-speaking community in South Brooklyn has receded from over 80 percent to 60 percent or less in recent years, even prominent Russian Jews have become more inclined to speak publicly of the community as “Russian-speaking” rather than “Russian Jewish.” (An influx of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Uzbeks and others accounts for the drop-off.)

Moses observed, “We are seeing an ongoing de-Judaization of this community, and what we see in ‘Russian Dolls’ confirms that it has become politically incorrect to use the word ‘Jew’ in many situations.”

A rabbi that works with the local Russian Jewish community said,

“Any reality show is obviously exaggerated and cannot be taken too seriously,” he said. “Still, it was good that the producers showed the guts to stand up against intermarriage. Yes, Diana called herself ‘Russian’ instead of ‘Jewish’; but the basic concept that one should marry inside one’s own community was upheld.” Rabbi Tokarsky added. “To compare ‘Russian Dolls’ to ‘Jersey Shore’ is like comparing animal life to plant life. ‘Russian Dolls’ is much better.”

Was upholding “intramarriage” the point of that scene? And was it really about a Jew marrying another Jew or was it about a Russian marrying another Russian? Is there a difference, and, if there is, does it matter?

[sup](L to R) Svetlana Rakhman, Anastasia Kurinnaya, Marina Levitis, Anna Khazanova, Renata Krumer and Diana Kosov star in Russian Dolls.[/sup]

Mazal Tov, Chely and Lauren

When our celebrity columnist, Nate Bloom, wrote about the engagement of Chely Wright to Lauren Blitzer, he posited, in an earlier draft, that theirs was the first celebrity, lesbian, interfaith wedding. I wasn’t certain. Much to the amusement of my friend and colleague over at Jewish Boston, David Levy, I started googling for proof. I tweeted,

This is not what feminism looks like: http://ow.ly/4OnQ0 (“Why are so many famous Jewish women lesbians?”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, googling failed to be helpful. The Google results ranged from highly amusing to pornographic to conspiracy theory meets anti-Semitism and homophobia (the latter can be seen, at your own discretion, by following the link in the above tweet), so I turned to some twitter buddies for help.

Both David and I asked questions to our followers at large, and to specific twitter buddies like Jewish musician Julie Silver and the folks at Keshet and Jewish Womens’ Archive, if they knew of other celebrity lesbian interfaith couples. (I believe Julie’s answer included her and her beloved wife…)

Unable to prove with certainty whether or not Chely and Lauren would be the first lesbian, interfaith, celebrity couple to be wed, the assertion was cut from the celeb column.

So why am I mentioning this now? Chely and Lauren will be married this weekend!

Although few details of the big day have been revealed thus far, Chely dished that it will be an outdoor ceremony with both a reverend and rabbi officiating, as the singer is Christian and her fiancée is Jewish. The reception will have a deejay, and guests would be wise to bring their dancing shoes!

And we, at IFF headquarters, are curious: which rabbi is co-officiating the ceremony? Lauren and Chely, if you’d recommend her/his officiating prowess to others, please recommend that they join our free Jewish Clergy Referral Service. We’re always looking out for rabbis who will officiate for interfaith couples, will co-officiate with clergy of other religions, and are LGBTQ friendly!

Mazal tov to the brides (kallot), whether they’re the first or amongst other happy couples!

New Feature for Communities

Coming soon to your community: a new blog!

This space will contain posts written by, for and/or about your community, city and region.

It will feature posts written just for you, as well as relevant posts written for our Network Blog, Wedding Blog or Parenting Blog.

We Need Your Help (We’ll Make It Worthwhile)!

Every now and again, once upon a third blue moon, infrequently*, we turn to our readers and ask for help.

We’re not asking for a donation (though, if you find our resources useful, subscribe to our bi-weekly eNewsletter, share our articles with friends and family, or otherwise want to support the work we, a non-profit, do to advocate for interfaith families, we wouldn’t say no to a donation!), we’re just asking for a few minutes of your time.

In order to make sure that the work we are doing (the articles we publish, resources we create, downloads and synagogue/What_To_Expect_At_A_Synagogue_-_Video.shtml:dni5xdlk">multimedia content we make available; the free Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service; the  Resource Center for Jewish Clergy and Resource Center for Program Providers with tips and advice for professionals, the in person trainings we offer; our mission… everything!) is what you actually want and need, we would greatly appreciate your spending a few minutes to fill out our User Survey.

And, as if helping us out isn’t reason enough (don’tcha feel warm and fuzzy?) we’ll make it worth your while: take our User Survey and you could win a $500 Am/Ex gift card!

Thanks for helping!

*[sub]in other words, every two years[/sub]

Intemarriage: The Impact of Birthright Israel

A “new” study, Intermarriage: The Impact and Lessons of Taglit-Birthright Israel, is being publicized on the impact of Birthright Israel on intermarriage. I put “new” in quotations because the study was prepared in November 2010. It apparently was published online by Contemporary Jewry then (I didn’t see it at the time), but the print version of the November 2010 journal is just being delivered, so the study is now getting some mention.

I’ve blogged before previous studies about Birthright Israel and intermarriage and the significance of Jewish wedding ceremonies.  The new study is important for focusing on intermarriage and collecting observations that have previously been made. The main conclusions of the new study reiterate that participation in Birthright Israel is associated with significantly greater probability of non-Orthodox trip participants being married to a Jew, and with increased importance placed upon raising Jewish children.

The study notes positive impacts of the trip on people involved in intermarriage: trip participants who were intermarried were nearly three times as likely as non-participants who were intermarried to think raising children as Jews was “very important,” and trip participants who themselves had intermarried parents, “rather than being lost to Jewish life,… appear to be particularly susceptible to informal Jewish education…”

For me this report is most interesting for its description of the “inreach” and “outreach” advocates and this conclusion:

The study casts doubt on the central claim of advocates of inreach; specifically, that there is little that can be done to convince intermarried couples to choose to raise their children as Jews. [Birthright Israel’s] strong impact on the importance intermarried participants attach to raising their children as Jews should encourage advocates of inreach to reconsider the possibility of engaging those who choose a mixed marriage. In parallel, the study also casts doubt on a central claim of outreach advocates. The present findings provide strong evidence that the rate of intermarriage is not fixed and unchangeable. Rather, the likelihood of intermarriage is contingent upon Jewish education and background, including even—or especially—educational interventions that occur after children leave their parents’ homes. Perhaps most importantly, the study suggests that there is no need to decide between inreach and outreach. The educational interventions that reduce the likelihood of intermarriage—including but not limited to [Birthright Israel]—also increase the likelihood that intermarried Jews will view raising Jewish children as very important.

As an outreach advocate, I have to say that I don’t take the position that the rate of intermarriage is fixed and unchangeable, and I am all in favor of educational interventions that result in part in more in-marriage. As I said in my previous blog post, “Birthright Israel may very well be the most successful Jewish continuity program ever. It is very positive news that trip participation is associated with Jews marrying other Jews.”

But I do take the position that there is going to continue to be a significant amount of intermarriage in the non-Orthodox Jewish community, regardless of intervention efforts. Again as I said with respect to the earlier study, “of trip participants who were married, 28% were intermarried…. [A]lthough trip participants are more likely to view marrying a Jew as very important, they are not significantly more likely to date other Jews. Significant numbers of young Jews are going to continue to intermarry, Birthright Israel trip or not.”

The choice between inreach and outreach as described by Leonard Saxe and the co-authors of this study is in my view a distraction from another more serious issue. There is extremely little programming available that is explicitly targeted at engaging people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life and community. This study supports educational interventions before intermarriage occurs, and it talks about comparative and cumulative effects of interventions like day school and Jewish camp as well as Birthright Israel, but it does not acknowledge that programming aimed at interfaith couples and families could have a similar positive cumulative impact. Sadly, it seems that the only interventions that are palatable to many in the community are those that can be shown to reduce intermarriage, with the fact that they also lead to more Jewish engagement by those who intermarry anyway as an tolerated by-product.

The last point in the report is that:

The present research cannot shed light on a key issue that will continue to divide the inreach and outreach advocates; specifically, whether rabbis and Jewish educators should advocate for endogamy. In the case of [Birthright Israel], the program’s effects appear to be due to more general features of the program, such as its impact on participants’ overall Jewish identities and/or social networks. Direct promotion of inmarriage is not part of [Birthright Israel’s] curriculum. Although some [Birthright Israel] educators may encourage endogamy, the program’s effects seem too large to be the result of such ad hoc efforts. Accordingly, the question of whether rabbis and educators should advocate for endogamy remains unanswered.

I have argued this point extensively before, most recently in my presentation at the Jewish Federation of North America’s last General Assembly. Advocating for endogamy creates too much of a risk of alienating the substantial numbers of people who do intermarry. I see this question as related to another issue that is implicated but not addressed in the new study, something I mentioned in my previous blog posts:

It would be a shame if … Birthright Israel [was viewed] as a “cure” or “antidote” to intermarriage or the “solution” to the “intermarriage problem.” Senior representatives of two of Birthright Israel’s leading funders have assured me that that is exactly not the message they want to see conveyed. They want to attract the children of intermarried parents to Birthright Israel trips. They understand that marketing Birthright Israel as a preventative to intermarriage risks pushing those young people away — who wants to go on a trip that will prevent them from doing what their parents did? Finally, they understand, I believe, that the most important impact of the Birthright Israel experience is the motivation to engage in Jewish life and have Jewish children – whether the marriage is “in” or “inter.”