New Year, New Decade

InterfaithFamily.com, Inc. was incorporated on October 4, 2001 – almost exactly ten years ago. Looking back – appropriate during this High Holiday period – it was an expression of hope. Hope that we could do work that effectively would support interfaith families to find value and meaning in engaging in Jewish life, and influence Jewish communities to welcome them. Looking forward – also timely now – are our goals realistic? Are our efforts needed?

Last night our friend Ron Klain forwarded judaism.html?obref=obinsite">a great story from The Daily Beast about Meet the Press host David Gregory, who was “raised Jewish by his Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.” Gregory’s wife Beth Wilkinson is not Jewish and decided not to convert but agreed to help educate their children. She “encouraged Gregory to understand more about Judaism” and her questions prompted David’s resolve to find answers through serious Jewish learning.

For NBC’s David Gregory, if it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press. If it’s Friday night, it’s Shabbat with his wife and three young children…Gregory has committed not just to exposing his children to Judaism, but to making it a part of the air they breathe… That includes saying the Sh’ma Yisrael prayer with them before bed.

Stories like this one – and we hear many at IFF – renew my conviction that Jewish life can be accessible to interfaith families and can add value and meaning to their lives. It’s a great way to start a new year – and a new decade for IFF.

On the community side, in a recent op-ed in the New York Jewish Week, Misha Galperin, who wrote a book about peoplehood, is disappointed with the lack of conversation about peoplehood, and thinks the word “peoplehood” itself has not caught on, is not warm and fuzzy, and may be to blame. He had hoped the book would spark discussion about “what we can do to bring people together with diverse Jewish commitments,” but in the book the goals he set for interactions were to:

connect Jews to other Jews; engender the feeling of belonging; make Jewish learning/values part of what we do and relevant to who we are; provide venues for Jewish meaning that raise the threshold of Jewish intensity; advance notions of responsibility; and model warmth and inclusivity.

By making the first goal to connect Jews to other Jews, Misha undermines his nod to people with diverse Jewish commitments – because there are a lot of people with Jewish commitments who are not Jews. Peoplehood is a hard concept for them. I don’t know how Beth Wilkinson feels about this – but many people in her position would say “I’m not a Jew so I guess I’m not part of the Jewish people.” A better word that peoplehood is community – maybe “communality” would be even better. Because I hope people like Beth Wilkinson would say “I certainly do feel that I’m part of the Jewish community – and doing something very important to support it.”

It’s fine if a program “connects Jews to other Jews,” but making that the explicit or perceived goal is a mistake because it is a turn-off to the many young people in our community who have a parent who is not a Jew or who are in a relationship with a person who is not a Jew. Our goal should be to connect all who are interested in Jewish life, and to connect them all in our community. We have a long way to go to reach that level of inclusivity.

Synagogues, Interfaith Families and Policies – Oh My!

Last month, I blogged about temple-beth-hillelbeth-el/">Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue outside of Philadelphia, that updated its constitution to be more explicitly welcoming of interfaith families.

Yesterday, the Jewish Exponent ran an article that looked at the more personal side of the decision. They interviewed Kari Kohn, a Presbyterian, who, with her husband, Joshua, is raising two Jewish kids.

When Kari and Joshua Kohn moved to Bryn Mawr a year ago, they enrolled their two sons, ages 3 and 5, in pre-school at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. But the interfaith couple had no intention of joining the congregation unless both husband and wife could be counted as members.

“I am looking to be part of a community,” Kari Kohn said. “I’m the one that drives the kids to pre-school, goes to Tot Shabbat with the kids, cooks the Shabbat meals. I’m committed to raising my kids Jewish,” she said, adding that she does not want to feel like an outsider.
Rabbi Elliot Strom

It’s families like the Kohns that Beth Hillel had in mind when it passed a constitutional amendment in June extending full membership to a family, even if only one of the adults is Jewish. Prior to the decision — the culmination of nearly two years of discussion — only the Jewish adult was considered a congregant.

The decision is not unprecedented for a Conservative shul, either nationally or locally. But it does represent a significant step for a prominent Main Line synagogue and signals a new commitment to attracting interfaith families.

But the article doesn’t stop there. It also looks a the personal impact decisions like these may have on a congregation’s clergy.

It mentions two Reform congregations:

Rabbi Eliot Strom of Shir Ami Bucks County Jewish Congregation, a Reform temple in Newtown, reversed a position he’s held for 35 years and will now officiate at interfaith weddings.

….He said he reconsidered his views because he’s seen many examples of non-Jews doing an effective job of raising their children as Jews — too many instances to be dismissed.

“My goal is to make more Jewish families, not to put a road block in front of them,” said Strom. “The reaction has been uniformly positive. The only issue that I have to deal with is some have said, ‘That’s great. I wish you had that position eight years ago or 12 years ago.’”

Other Reform rabbis are sticking to their positions. Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen disputed the notion that refusing to officiate at interfaith ceremonies makes his synagogue less welcoming. “It is not whether or not you do the ceremony, it’s how you relate to them, the message that you give and how you explain the reason you don’t officiate,” he said, adding that he’ll allow a justice of the peace to officiate at a ceremony at his congregation and will even attend.

He said he designs ceremonies that revolve around Jewish vows and asking a non-Jew to make such vows essentially asks them to be dishonest on their wedding day, he said.

And “a Traditional shul considered to the right of the Conservative movement but not Orthodox”:

“We have such families and we don’t want to see them as something that fell into the cracks of communal life; we want them to feel welcome,” said Rabbi Jean Claude Klein of Shaare Shamayim.

So here are my questions: Does your synagogue include non-Jewish spouses as members? Does your clergy officiate at interfaith marriages? Do you agree with Rabbi Marx’s position? With Rabbi Strom’s reasons?

On a related note, Karen Kushner, our Chief Education Officer, is collecting examples of synagogue policies for non-Jewish partners and family members. Are you counted as a member? Can you take on a leadership position? Are you given ritual honors? [email=karenk@interfaithfamily.com]Let her know![/email] Please include the name of your synagogue and city in your response. Thanks!

Videos for Rosh Hashanah

If, like me, you’re nowhere near ready for Rosh Hashanah next week, and just need a fun way to get in the holiday mood… or you just want to have a little fun, hear some sweet tunes, and maybe learn a bit along the way… here are some Rosh Hashanah videos to enjoy.

Some are new (and going viral quickly!) others a bit older, but I think you’ll enjoy the selection.

A musical parody for Rosh Hashanah, based on “Waka Waka” (the World Cup 2010 song) by Shakira:

Another musical parody, based on Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO:

[sup](Glossary: fish head – a superstitious custom of eating fish heads at Rosh Hashanah to ensure wealth in the new year; shuckling - swaying while praying.)[/sup]

Todd & God: learning about the tradition of eating a new fruit on the second night of Rosh Hashanah:

Shofar Callin’, hip hop by Y-Love and the folks at Shemspeed, explaining some of the religious, biblical themes of the holiday:

The Maccabeats (remember their catchy Hanukkah song?) offer up Book of Good Life, a parody of Good Life by OneRepublic:

A story you can share with your family about an apple tree…

Want to get ready for hearing the shofar? JewishBoston.com has been blowing the shofar each day this month and posting the videos online (you might recognize this cute video starring our own Roni!). MyJewishLearning demonstrates the different shofar blasts. There was a shofar flash mob in Chicago at Wrigley Field.

And for those of you who like the Muppets and songs that get stuck in your head, Shana tovah!

JDate & The Search for Mr. Right

I suppose my desire to rejoin JDate was reinforced yesterday in an InterfaithFamily.com staff meeting while discussing our new 401K plan.  The sign up form was simple – but all I could see were two boxes looming at me:

    “Check here for Married.” 
    “Check Here for NOT MARRIED.” 

It was like a flashing beacon in the room.  I was the only unmarried one (well, unless you count Benjamin, but he’s got one foot down the aisle with his lovely fiancée).  So, I thought to myself, “It’s time to get back on the horse.”

It’s been a while since I’ve been on JDate.  I had taken a breather to move apartments, start a new job at IFF, and you know, smell the roses.

JDate has changed since I first joined (let’s just say….) many years ago.  I think one of the best changes is that it now offers the option for non-Jews to join the site and can choose one of the following as the “religion” option:

It appears that this was an important shift with JDate.  According to its mission, JDate is “deeply committed to Israel and Jewish cultural programs” but also provides “support for numerous non-profit organizations of all faiths.” With about 50% of the population intermarrying, this is an important option for those of us still looking for Mr. or Ms. Right.  For support and more information on interdating, visit here.

I’m off to find my Mr. Right.

Howard Stern: Anti-Semitism Crusader

As I heard the rhythmic song begin its first beat, I knew this song was not going to be funny or clever.  This morning, Howard Stern introduced his listeners on SiriusXM 100 to an anti-Semitic song created by pseudo-celebrity Andy Dick.  Howard Stern, who often jokes on the radio about being “half-Jewish,” is actually the child of two Jewish parents, Ben and Ray Stern.  Stern has been doing an outstanding job of defending against the anti-Semitism that Andy Dick has been spouting  all over the airwaves.  In an interview several weeks back, Dick ranted and raved about his distaste for Jewish people, and how he felt as if Stern only hired Jewish people.  He also referred to Stern as a “shallow, money-grubbing Jew.”

While Stern has allowed callers to call him a “hook-nosed Jew bastard” and other derogatory terms, he seems to uphold the philosophy that if you are going to make fun of someone, then make fun of everyone.  But with Andy Dick, it’s different.  His anti-Semitism is spiteful and anything but funny.  It’s personal.

Andy’s song, entitled “The Jews are out to get you,” includes the lyrics:  Go home Jews, Hitler’s after you… Hitler’s hanging out in the shadows… he’s looking for you.   

There is one good thing: Andy has pulled the song from his personal website.  The bad thing – you can still listen to it here (warning: you may find this song offensive; Benjamin and I sure did): 

I can’t wait to continue to listen to Stern defend Judaism.

In Other News…

Three stories of interest to readers of InterfaithFamily.com:

Kansas!

The new president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Miriam Scharf, is on the right track.

In addition to other goals, like education and resource development, she plans to make “welcoming interfaith families a priority”:

“Studies show that in some communities as many as 50 percent of Jewish families are interfaith,” she said. “In a community like Kansas City, I think we can do a better job of addressing some of the needs that interfaith families have, engaging the interfaith family in Jewish community activities and making them feel welcome.”

Miriam, if you need any help, we’re here for you and your community.


Speaking up for Jews by Choice

Writing in Haaretz, Rabbi Michael Knopf busts myths about Jews by Choice (aka, converts to Judaism). He lays out possible historical reasons for being skeptical, or even critical, of those who convert (or want to convert) to Judaism. But his bottom line?

But here is the truth: A Jew by Choice is just as Jewish as any Jew by Birth. For over two millennia, this has been the normative position of the Jewish tradition toward those brave and blessed souls who have chosen to become part of the Jewish people.

It is a position that has its pedigree in Talmudic law (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 47), and, according to many scholars, likely predates the Mishna itself.

Although the sincerity of any potential convert must be ascertained prior to bringing them into the Jewish fold, once they emerge from the mikveh (the ritual bath), they are a Jew in every way.

When a convert becomes Jewish, it is irrevocable. The Talmud, Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher, and Joseph Caro (to name but a few) all agree that conversion means a complete shedding of non-Jew status; a Jew by Choice is as fully Jewish as any Jew by Birth.

Thanks for reiterating this, rabbi. Let’s hope that more people hear your message and treat all of us, by choice or by birth, equally.


Chinese Jews

I was surprised to stumble across an article about the “who’s a Jew” debate in the Wall Street Journal. The Jews of the Chinese town of Kaifeng followed patrilineal descent (“Kaifeng Jews trace their heritage through their father, as Chinese traditionally do”). But when they visit Israel, or get in touch with the Chabad House in Beijing, they’re told they’re not actually Jewish (“They may stem from Jewish ancestry, but they aren’t Jewish,” says Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, who runs the orthodox Chabad House in Beijing. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Kaifeng in 400 years.”).

Except there is one, though it’s divided and diminished. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people in the city say they are descendants of Kaifeng Jews and cling to at least some Jewish traditions. A canvas poster at No. 21 Teaching the Torah Lane announces the street as the site of a synagogue that was destroyed in an 1860 flood and never rebuilt. Inside a tiny courtyard house, “Esther” Guo Yan works as a tour guide and sells knick-knacks decorated with Jewish stars.

When tourists stop by, she quizzes them on Jewish ceremonies, like what prayers to say when lighting Sabbath candles. She says she hasn’t yet managed to fast a full day on Yom Kippur, though she is trying. As the granddaughter of a Kaifeng Jew, she says the orthodox standard on Judaism is unfair: “We read the Torah with Eastern thoughts; deal with it.”

The first Jewish merchants arrived when Kaifeng was in its heyday as the Song dynasty capital. They married the local women and rose to become mandarins and military officials. Over the centuries they blended in ethnically and were forgotten by the world until 1605, when a Jewish scholar from Kaifeng, Ai Tien, met Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in Beijing. The missionary then spread the news that Jews had been living in China for centuries.

The Kaifeng Jewish population is thought to have peaked at around 5,000, but by the early 1900s, none could read Hebrew and the community’s Torah scrolls were sold to collectors. Jews were called “the Muslims with the blue caps,” referring to the color of the yarmulkes some still wore.

“In our family, we didn’t eat pork, that’s for sure,” says Nina Wang, a 24-year-old Kaifeng native who now lives in Israel and underwent orthodox Jewish conversion. The family had menorahs and Sabbath cups, she said, “but we didn’t know what to do with those things.”

It’s a really interesting read about a community not known to many of us!

An American Royal Wedding?

You might read some articles online claiming that this weekend there will be an American Royal Wedding. Now, I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but there are some amusing lines in one column in particular. My comments in italics for, hopefully, your amusement. Be warned: I’m channeling my innermost gossip columnist for this blog post.

This Sunday, David Lauren, son of legendary designer Ralph Lauren, and Lauren Bush, granddaughter of President George H.W. and niece of President George W., will join forces in holy matrimony.
I’m glad we’re not the only ones who understand that interfaith marriages can still be holy.
The Labor Day weekend event, held at Ralph Lauren’s Colorado ranch, will fuse the fashions of two of America’s famed family dynasties. Think cowboy boots and American flags with a few diamonds sprinkled in.

Fuse… fashion… famed family… Were they paid to alliterate? Also, is the Bush family really known for its fashion? 

Lauren, 27, met her 39-year-old fiance in 2004, when she was still a student at Princeton University. It was the classic tale of boy meets girl at a fashion gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That’s a classic tale?
Girl faces dilemma of taking boy’s last name, which is the same as her first.
If I had a nickel…
After six years of courtship, David, a VP at his father’s company, proposed to Lauren, a handbag designer and philanthropist, on the steps of the Met. She said yes and settled on being the future Mrs. Lauren Bush-Lauren.
Phew. Not Mrs. Lauren Lauren. Though, Mrs. Lauren Lifshitz has a nice ring to it…

In all seriousness, this should be a lovely wedding. And not just because the dress code is “black tie with a ‘Western twist.” (Does Ralph Lauren make wedding dresses that meet those specifications?) None of the articles have given any clues to how the couple will bring together their two religions for the ceremony, but if we find out, we’ll let you know.

Mazal tov, Lauren and David!

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!