Rabbi Reverses Interfaith Marriage Policy

The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles has a powerful article today, Rabbi reverses interfaith marriage policy. The article details how Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, explained in a Rosh Hashanah sermon why he was changing his long-held position and would now officiate at interfaith weddings.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said.

Rosove said he would officiate where the couple is connected to his synagogue, the partner who is not Jewish is not active in another religion, and the couple is committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education.

“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire.’”

The article also quotes Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, explaining her similar change of position:

“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.

The complete article, with Rabbi Rosove’s explanation of his previous reasoning and how and why it changed, is well worth reading.

October 1, 2012 Update: With Rabbi Rosove’s permission you can now read the sermon, with a postscript, on our site.

What Draws Interfaith Families To Jewish Life

I’m pleased to report that the New York Jewish Week has published my op-ed, What Draws Interfaith Families to Jewish Life. A considerably longer version is on the Huffington Post, A New Year To Engage Interfaith Families in Jewish Life.

Having just come off Yom Kippur’s intense period of introspection about the past and the future, it feels that the time is now right for this call for a new sustained effort to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

You can find the report on the first year of our InterfaithFamily/Chicago project here, and the report on our holiday surveys here.

From “Estranged” to Beyond Welcoming

There’s an article in yesterday’s Miami Herald about a photo credit: Emily Michot, the Miami Herald father and daughter. But it’s not your typical fluff piece. From a “traditional” Jewish family, they became estranged after she told him she was getting married — and that her husband was not Jewish.

Fast forward, and not only have the reconciled, but they now work together: Debbie as a cantor and her father as a rabbi. They’ve created a congregation with an explicitly welcoming message:

Now, as a freelance cantor in Broward County, she has created her own congregation, welcoming anyone who isn’t comfortable in a traditional setting because they’re married to a non-Jew, don’t want to pay hefty synagogue dues, or are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender.

And she is joined by her once-estranged father, who began studying for the rabbinate at age 65 expressly to join his daughter’s mission.

If you’ve just read the post Ari wrote this morning, wondering why more interfaith couples and families aren’t joining synagogues, it might be interesting to compare the two… Is the goal for people to “join,” or is the goal for people to be moved, feel connected to spirituality and religion? It seems this father/daughter duo have taken a different approach — and it’s working.

Coming In The Front Door

I’ve heard rabbis say that the most important part of the synagogue is not the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept but the front door. It seems that at the forefront of outreach techniques are ideas for synagogue staff and lay leaders for how to be welcoming, how to help ease the way into organized Jewish life. (Do we ever ask how we help longer time members bridge the gap between being welcomed new members and feeling at home?) In other words, when does needing to be welcomed begin and end?

You might ask yourself why there have to be manuals written teaching people how to be welcoming. The same ways we welcome guests to our home and host people at functions should translate into how we welcome people to our synagogue or community center. We smile, take someone’s coat, offer refreshments, and try to get to know the person. We talk about subjects of mutual interest, we suggest activities that would be engaging for all involved, we share news and ideas that we think the other person would enjoy hearing and learning about, etc.

Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily, wrote in a recent blog post about the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, the following:

The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”

This past year in Chicagoland, I have worked hard trying to spread the word about how to find and access welcoming synagogues and opportunities for engagement with the Jewish community. Yet, by and large, interfaith families are still not walking in the front door of congregations to join the synagogue as “regulars.” Many families come for a free, family holiday service but do not make the next step to join the congregation and enroll children in religious school. The following are questions I have which I am asking in a non-judgmental, sincerely curious way. If you have comments about any of these, please share.

  • Is it because they are just not ready to make this major commitment?
  • Is it because they feel they won’t truly feel like an insider there, that they won’t know enough people, know where to sit, know the customs and traditions? That they will make some kind of mistake or faux pas?
  • Is it because they assume the price of membership is too expensive and that the process for a dues reduction is too humiliating?
  • Is it because they feel they would not take advantage of synagogue activities, such as Friday night or Shabbat morning worship, adult education or social justice programs, because they legitimately don’t easily fit into their busy work and family schedules?
  • Is it because the partner who did not grow up with Judaism has hesitations or concerns about what joining a congregation would mean for them personally and for their extended family?

Is the goal in all of this synagogue membership? I think there are lots and lots of ways people can engage with Jewish living that can be meaningful and fulfilling. But, this blog post is focused on this one question of what prevents people who take part in family holiday programs at synagogues and community centers from joining as members.

The Bridal Expo

As I have blogged about before, one of the biggest challenges to expanding the work we are doing here in Chicago is finding interfaith couples who may want Judaism in their lives but who have not yet connected with synagogues and/or clergy. We decided to get creative in our pursuit: we booked a booth at a bridal expo to see if we could meet brides who are in interfaith relationships!

I wrote this blog post last night, from the Oak Brook, IL bridal expo. I was able to sit and write during the fashion show, as I waited for the brides to make their last walk through the booths.

The InterfaithFamily chuppah booth at the bridal expo last night.

The InterfaithFamily chuppah booth at the bridal expo last night.

I have to say, this was a new experience! The booths around me included a department store registry, a seafood restaurant offering catering, a beauty bar that has spa treatments (including wheat-grass give-away drinks that are a lovely shade of greenish tan) and a photography studio.

These were the comments I have heard thus far:

“We are an interfaith relationship because I am Catholic and he is Protestant” or “I am Muslim and converting to Greek Orthodox.”

“Oh, my friend just married someone Jewish and his dad who is a Judge officiated for them.”

“My family has Jewish roots but my son is converting to Christianity.”

“My friend is getting married in a couple of months and still can’t find a rabbi.”

But I did not meet any interfaith couples themselves. I may not have met each of the 350 brides at this expo, but I definitely met lots of them! I got plenty of smiles, nods of approval and comments like, “It’s great that you’re here” and “We should be more open with religion.”

I wonder if anybody who takes a card for a friend will give them the card and if the friend will want to contact us. I hope so!

I think that having a presence at future bridal expos has potential to help us meet interfaith couples, but maybe this was not the right location in terms of the demographics of this area. What do you think? If you’re married, did you go to an expo while you were in the planning stages?

It wasn’t a total loss — I did see some beautiful floral arrangements and sample some lovely champagne! Mazel tov to all of these brides!

Don’t forget to tell your friends about our wedding guide and about our Love and Religion — online workshop for Chicagoland couples, starting October 2012.

Volunteering’s The Way to My Heart

This is a guest blog post by Jordyn Rozensky, who has written for us before. She’s the Director of Young Adult & Service Programs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

In an article I wrote for InterfaithFamily about my family’s approach to Christmas celebrations, I mentioned that volunteering is a great way to navigate the holidays. But why wait for Christmukkah to do good in your community? Many communities are in need of volunteers. And here in Boston, we have an opportunity for interfaith couples to volunteer as a cohort!

You’re part of an interfaith couple and looking for a way to be involved in the Jewish community? Interested in volunteering, together? Looking for other young adults who might be asking some of the same questions? Well, ReachOut! could be the answer to those questions!

ReachOut! is excited to be expanding our offerings to include a volunteer opportunity for members of our community in interfaith relationships. This track, which would require participation from both members of the couples, will provide a chance to explore shared values of volunteering, as well as to discuss issues of service and community in an interfaith environment.

The interfaith track will take place Monday nights beginning on October 15th from 6:30-7:30 at Golda Meir House in Newton. The Golda Meir House is a senior residence, and part of the JCHE network. Volunteers will lead a weekly discussion group, having a chance to form relationships and create intergenerational connections.

The nitty gritty details are available on our event listing on the InterfaithFamily Network.

Got more questions? Well, we have more answers. Contact me, Jordyn, or swing by our launch party.

Four Ways to Make your Jewish Institution Inclusive for LGBTQ Interfaith Families

Originally written for Keshet’s blog. Keshet is a national grassroots organization that works for the full inclusion and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews in all facets of Jewish life.

The High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — can be the most synagogue-centric of the Jewish calendar year. They’re also among the most-well attended, even by those who may not otherwise go to synagogue.

Many interfaith couples and families, along with adults raised in interfaith homes, don’t feel welcome in Jewish organizations. And since many LGBTQ Jews feel excluded from Jewish communal organizations, it’s a double challenge for interfaith LGBTQ Jews. This might be one of the reasons LGBTQ Jews are more likely to interdate and intermarry than their straight peers. But it’s also a reason why our organizations must ensure that every member of the Jewish community is welcomed and included this holiday season — and all year long.

Here on four easy steps your organization can take right now.

1. Update your website.

Making Your Jewish Institution More LGBT Interfaith Inclusive

Courtesy InterfaithFamily

  • State explicitly on your homepage that your community includes and welcomes both LGBTQ and interfaith families and looks forward to engaging them in all activities;
  • Use photos that reflect your community’s diversity.

2. Create a Welcoming Policy Document.

  • Start the policy with a statement of inclusion;
  • Let interfaith LGBTQ families know what their membership status will be;
  • Let partners and spouses who are not Jewish know if there are restrictions for leadership positions.

3. Make your inclusion visible.

  • Add an Organizational Affiliate Badge from InterfaithFamily to your homepage, in your links section, or on your about us page.
  • Put a Safe Zone sticker on your door or your website.
  • Mention the “I” Word: when creating publicity materials for your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, events, and programming. Don’t forget to explicitly invite “interfaith families,” and “LGBT families.” (InterfaithFamily’s studies have found that 72% of our users find it “important” that a synagogue say its programming is “for interfaith families” in marketing material.)

4. Don’t assume.

  • We all have different levels of Jewish knowledge and hurdles that match, so:

    • Translate all Hebrew/Yiddish language;
    • Avoid terms like “non-Jew” to describe a partner who isn’t Jewish (I can only speak for myself, but I do not identify as a “non-Christian”);
    • Provide easy access material (like our booklets), for visitors and others who might want a refresher; locate them near main doors as well as in low traffic areas.

For more information on making your synagogue welcoming and inclusive to all types of interfaith families, check out InterfaithFamily’s Resource Center for Program Providers.

What Our Surveys Say About What Attracts Interfaith Families to Jewish Organizations

There is a great deal of concern in the Jewish world about the degree to which interfaith families are engaged or disengaged in Jewish life and community. A headline of the New York Jewish Community Study of 2011, released in June 2012, was that interfaith families generally score low on that study’s index of Jewish engagement, while interfaith families who join synagogues or send their children to Jewish education score comparably to in-married families. Community studies like New York’s, and other available communal research, however, tell us precious little about what factors contribute to interfaith families joining Jewish organizations and expanding their connections to Judaism – or what they experience as barriers to that expanded connection.

Starting in December 2009, Interfaith Family’s annual December Holidays survey and Passover/Easter survey have asked precisely those questions. We’ve just published a report on the responses to those questions. Our surveys are not “scientific” or based on a random sample; the respondents are self-selected and some may have responded to more than one survey. But no one else is asking these questions, and our report sheds what is currently the most available light on these important issues: it summarizes and analyzes close to 700 responses from six consecutive surveys from respondents who were in interfaith relationships, were raising their children as Jews, and were members of a synagogue or Jewish organization.

Interfaith families are attracted, in order of importance, by explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome; inclusive policies on participation by interfaith families; invitations to learn about Judaism and, to a much lesser extent, invitations to convert; the presence of other interfaith families; programming and groups specifically for interfaith couples; and officiation by rabbis at weddings of interfaith couples. Read the full report for the data and many comments to our open-ended questions.

The policy implications of these findings are that Jewish communities that want to increase engagement by local interfaith families need to:

  • Ensure that local interfaith families receive explicit messages of welcome from the community and its organizations and leaders.
  • Ensure that there are some Jewish clergy in the community who will officiate at weddings of interfaith couples so that their experience with the Jewish community at that critical point in their lives will help them connect to Jewish life.
  • Offer programs and classes explicitly marketed as “for interfaith families,” and foster the formation of groups of interfaith couples and families in which they can explore and experience Jewish life together.

That’s the approach we are taking in our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.

Insights on Engaging Interfaith Families from the NY Community Study

The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, has important findings for all those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

The study confirms that there is a huge amount of intermarriage, and it is continuing. Between 2006 and 2011, one in three non-Orthodox Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish (a 33% individual rate of intermarriage); 50% of the non-Orthodox couples formed were intermarried couples (a 50% couples rate of intermarriage) (135).1 Twelve percent of the children (age 0 to 17) in Jewish households — 50,000 children — are in intermarried households (183).

The study reports that 31% of the children of intermarried households are raised Jewish and 11% are raised “Jewish and something else,” while 13% have parents who are undecided and 46% are raised not Jewish (180-81).2 A goal of having more than 50% of intermarried parents raise their children Jewish is reachable — if the undecided parents and the parents raising their children Jewish and something else can be influenced towards more Jewish choices.

The tone of much of the study follows an approach consistently taken in the past by Steven M. Cohen, the study’s principal author, that lumps together all intermarried couples and then highlights their relatively low levels of Jewish engagement when compared to all in-married couples. The policy implications of this approach are that it is not worth making efforts to engage interfaith couples. A different approach, which compares those intermarried couples who are Jewishly engaged with in-married couples, highlights their relatively comparable levels of Jewish engagement; the policy implications of that approach, which is reflected to a degree in the study, are to make efforts to move more intermarried couples to Jewish engagement.

For example, the study reports that the children of intermarried households receive relatively little Jewish education — only 35% are sent to supplemental school; but of the 15% of intermarried households that are synagogue members, 90% send their children to supplemental school. The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to become synagogue members — and the study does say, somewhat reluctantly, “Perhaps expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing” (28).

For another example, of intermarried households that are raising their children exclusively Jewish, 54% score high or very high on the study’s index of Jewish engagement (182).3 The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to raise their children as Jews — and the study does say that the fact that 13% of intermarried parents are undecided about how they are raising their children “suggest that communal efforts to engage intermarried couples should support efforts to raise Jewish children” (28).

For another example, the study reports that the intermarried are less engaged because they have fewer Jewish social connections, with 77% of those age 30-39 living fairly isolated from other Jews — but adds, “These patterns suggest one approach: connect the intermarried socially to other Jews” (162).

The study’s authors ask an important question: “To what extent has the Jewish community made progress in closing the engagement gap associated with intermarriage?” Comparing their findings to those of the 2002 community study, they conclude that the intermarried (again lumped all together) became more distant when compared to the in-married (140). Given the negligible communal efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly since 2002, the lack of progress should not be a surprise.

The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”

But a related finding exposes widespread negative attitudes about intermarriage that potentially result in disinviting, unwelcoming behavior: high percentages of parents say they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. While 6% of intermarrieds and 12% of converts would be upset, 56% of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset. Feeling that the fact of their relationship is a cause of upset in a community is a factor likely to discourage a couple from engaging with that community.

Sensing negative communal attitudes may explain why more intermarried households make charitable contributions exclusively to non-Jewish causes, and fewer give to Jewish causes (203-05) — and the study does suggest “experiment[ing] with new ways of connecting with those who seem the most disconnected from communal Jewish philanthropy — [including] intermarried households” (30).

The fact that people go where they feel welcomed is supported by another study finding, namely a significant shift of Conservative Jews to Reform, which clearly has been perceived as the more hospitable movement for the intermarried. Of all Jews raised Conservative, 29% now identify as Reform; of all now Reform, 31% were raised Conservative (124).

The study has a very helpful discussion of the current context of shifting identities. It highlights fluidity, with people freely choosing identities based on relationships; malleability, with identities changing over time; and hybridity, a confluence of multiple traditions that is the ethos in American society generally (111-12) .

One aspect of hybridity briefly mentioned in the study is that in 9 of 10 intermarried households, synagogue affiliated or not, Christmas is celebrated by a household member. The study states that “In about half, it is celebrated as a religious holiday” but provides no explanation of what that means. InterfaithFamily’s eight years of December holiday surveys have consistently reported, in contrast, that high majorities of interfaith families raising their children as Jews celebrate Christmas but not as a religious holiday.

The Jewish Community Study of New York report can be found at ujafedny.org/jewish-community-study-of-new-york-201.


[1]The study may understate the amount and the Jewish engagement of what have commonly been thought of as intermarriages. Five percent of study respondents were people who had no Jewish parent and had not formally converted, but identified as “Jewish by personal choice.” A marriage between a Jew (by birth or formal conversion) and such a Jew by personal choice has up to know been thought of as an intermarriage, but the study appears to count such couples as “conversionary, in-married” — resulting in less intermarriage. Moreover, Jews by personal choice almost by definition would be more Jewishly engaged than non-Jews; if marriages involving Jews by personal choice were counted as intermarriages, that should mean more Jewish engagement by intermarried couples than this study, which treats those couples as in-married, reports.

[2]The study frequently attributes cause and effect to intermarriage while being very cautious about doing so with any other issue. Thus the study concludes that intermarriage — as opposed to other factors such as what the partners bring to the marriage — “strongly influences” whether children are raised as Jews, the Jewish engagement level of the home, and the Jewish educational choices for their children (191). In contrast, for example, on the question whether having fewer Jewish acquaintances causes less engagement, the study says “Of course, the chicken and egg here are difficult to discern. Do people with many Jewish intimates acquire and sustain Jewish engagement, or do Jewishly engaged people form and sustain Jewish friendships and family relationships?”

[3]Many of the study’s findings are organized around an index of Jewish engagement, based on twelve factors selected by the study’s authors (118), and the study frequently refers to intermarried households scoring low on that index — for example, 70% of the intermarried score low on the engagement index (142). The authors acknowledge, however, that indicators that can be undertaken individually or with friends and family, that don’t demand formal affiliation or collective action, are not included in their engagement index (119). As intermarried households are more involved with these indicators that are not included on the study’s index, their Jewish engagement is understated by the index.

What Can I Say?

I have lead three workshops recently for religious school teachers and the same frustration came up each time. Teachers wanted me to tell them what to say when a child said x, y, or z. I veer away from giving teachers a script (I provide broad guidelines to think about) because I think each situation is different. The way each child says what they say, who the child is, how old they are, how many times the class has talked about this, etc., has to be taken into account in order for the teacher to know how to respond. However, in this blog I am going to share what I would say to a main comment that I have frequently heard uttered by children of all ages in religious schools.

“I’m only half Jewish.”

As a teacher, I would ask back, “Why do you say that?”

The child may respond, “Because my mom/dad isn’t Jewish and I celebrate Christmas and so I am only half Jewish.” (They may add that they don’t believe in God or other reasons.)

I might ask, “Do you think your parents would describe you as half Jewish?”

If a child says “yes,” I may encourage them to talk with their parents about this. I would be sure to email or call the parents after class to let them know that their child spoke about this in class and that I was happy they felt comfortable sharing with me. I would let the parents know that I encouraged their child to talk with them about these labels of identity. I would also mention that the clergy and educators at the synagogue are open to talking with parents and families about Judaism in an interfaith family and that there are lots of resources and support available to them as they figure out how to speak to their children about religion and identity.

If the child answers “no,” that their parents wouldn’t use this expression, a teacher could ask how they think their parents would describe who the child is religiously. If the child answers that their parents would say they are Jewish, a teacher could explain that maybe their parents have hoped that Judaism would be the religion and way of life they most identify with, but that this doesn’t mean that the other religion in the family is ignored or pushed away. It is wonderful to explore and experience the way one parent was raised and the way some in the family practice. This doesn’t take away from being brought up Jewish.

I would tell the child that a main hope is that we all feel whole and that we feel secure in who we are. I would also tell children that Judaism and Christianity share so much. We share sacred texts, values, core biblical narratives, faith in God, and a desire to make the world a better place. There are many prayers within Christianity and many songs that have roots in Judaism. We both love holidays, rituals, and traditions. But, there are many parts of the religions that are different. It may be hard to really be both religions. You can experience aspects of both religions, learn about both religions, come to love parts of both religions, but you might end up practicing and adhering to one religion. Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. In religious school and then in high school and college, you can continue to learn about Judaism and may find so many aspects that add much to your life. That’s one reason you are all here. We are here to learn about an ancient religion that still applies to our experiences in the world today. The stories, history, culture, language, and ethics of Judaism – all these aspects and many more – can bring joy, purpose, order, connectedness, and meaning to how we live.

When children bring up issues of identity it can be tricky for the religious school teacher to know what to say, how much to say, what would support the family and the goals of the religious school program and the congregation’s denominational ideology (whether it is Reform or Conservative, for example). This is why I encourage educators to write guidelines such as this and to role play with teachers to help teachers know how to respond to the most commonly talked about issues from going to church, celebrating Christmas or Easter to having family that isn’t Jewish to not believing in God, not wanting to come to religious school/Hebrew school, wondering about Jesus and more.

If you are a religious school teacher, let me know if you could see this dialogue taking place in class and if this is helpful to thinking through how to respond before comments are made so that you are not caught off-guard.