An Open Letter to Jewish Professionals

Recently, a friend of mine told me about her experience as a Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage of 20 years. She wrote:

When we got married, I asked the rabbi why it was ok with him that we were marrying and why he was willing to officiate at the wedding, and he replied, “Well, you are both good people, and I’d prefer to keep one of you than lose both of you. And maybe I’ll get both of you!” He not only kept me, we are raising three sons Jewishly. And my husband has a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for our Jewish traditions.

Some people have been dubious that welcoming works, but my friend’s experience is the perfect example of why welcoming can and will ensure the future of the Jewish people.

Welcoming interfaith couples is so incredibly important, I’d actually say that it’s critical. Looking at the statistics, it’s not surprising that interfaith couples are a large component of our Jewish communities. Not investing in programming for interfaith couples is a decision the Jewish community cannot afford to make. It would be akin to recognizing that children and youth make up a large component of our community, but not offering any programming or outreach to them.

The good news is that many organizations understand that we need to welcome and embrace interfaith families. There has been some improvement over the years, but it is still happening in stages and could go further. Some organizations are saying the right things and beginning to market appropriately to interfaith couples, but their work is not yet done.

Recently, a Jewish professional said that their Jewish educational program was very welcoming to interfaith families. She did not think that there was a need for any additional interfaith sensitivity training in their organization. Yet, a week later, a child in that program told her mother that she wasn’t part of the chosen people because she was not Jewish — a message she internalized during her Jewish education. There is always room for improvement.

What steps should an organization take to be more welcoming? Here are some ideas:

 

A lot of progress has been made, but there is much more we need to do. Saying that your organization is welcoming is a good first step but implementation is never a task that is fully complete. Contact network@interfaithfamily.com if you have any questions on how to attract and retain interfaith couples in your organization. We look forward to working with you!

A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted to Jewschool.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

Grandparenting in Interfaith Families

Are you a Jewish grandparent navigating your relationship with your child, their partner, and your grandchild? GrandmaAre you the adult, sandwiched between your parent and your young child, respecting the one who raised you and hoping they will respect your choices in raising your own family? I am curious what works (and what doesn’t work). Please comment below and join me as we start a dialogue about the role of grandparents!

I believe step one should be to have a conversation. The grandparent should sit down with their adult child and discuss how each sees the other’s role. Share thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Respect each other. Recognize that this can be easier said than done!

But then what? Grandparents: what do you do (have you done) that has worked really well? What didn’t work so well that you would do differently next time? Children, what have your parents done that worked (or didn’t)? What do you wish they would do?

I have five ideas to get us started; I’m interested to hear if you think these will be well received.Grandparents

  • Celebrate a Jewish holiday with the other grandparents. For example, invite them to the Passover seder (along with your child’s family). Include them in your religious/cultural celebrations. Help them better understand Judaism and its rich traditions.
  • Ask your child if they need support, resources, or guidance from you. Offer to assist them in the choices that they make. Being active in the Jewish community can be expensive; if you are in a position to help, offer to pay for religious school or summer camp (if your assistance would be appreciated).
  • Offer to babysit, but make sure you’re transparent with your plans. Tell your child that you’d like to invite your grandchildren over for dinner on Friday night, light Shabbat candles, say the blessings, and enjoy a wonderful meal together. Attain quality time with your grandchildren and give their parents the night off for their own quality time together!
  • Be visible in your grandchild’s life. Visit often if you can. Use modern technology like Skype to see and talk to your family if they live far away (or even if they are around the corner).
  • Keep the dialogue open.

What would you like to add to this list?

Israel Doesn’t Want Reform Converts?

There is a very powerful op-ed in the New York Jewish Week today, Israel Doesn’t Want a Reform Convert Like Me by Rabbi Heidi Hoover who serves as rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn.

Jewish status in Israel is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, and conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis – and now even under by some Orthodox rabbis – are not recognized. Because Rabbi Hoover converted to Judaism under Reform auspices, her conversion is not recognized, and she concludes, “Israel doesn’t want me.”

I think Rabbi Hoover is exactly right when she says,

One of the messages that American Jews receive relentlessly is that we need to support Israel. There is much hand wringing over the perceived lessening of American Jewish connection to Israel among teens and young adults, and even among rabbinical students. I believe this lessening of connection is in part due to a growing number of American Jews who cannot fully live as Jews in Israel because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate….

The question of Jewish status depends on who you are asking, or whose opinion you care about. Rabbi Hoover tells people in her congregation who are converts under liberal auspices, and people who identify as Jewish whose mothers were not Jewish, that “they are, in fact, Jewish,” but she wants them to be prepared that there are those who will not recognize them as such. That’s important, especially for the many young adults raised as Jews in interfaith families whose Jewish status would be questioned by others.

I think Rabbi Hoover also is exactly right when she concludes,

It is crucial that American Jews of all denominations join to support religious pluralism in Israel, and in the United States as well. We need to find ways to respect and recognize each other’s conversions and life-cycle rituals. There are not so many of us that we can afford to be divided, and if Israel continues to disenfranchise American Jews, she cannot expect their support to continue indefinitely.

Membership Possibilities: the Give and Take Model

Many rabbis I meet with me tell me that they need more members in their synagogues. They want to retain their current members while adding new members. Congregations have tried different models for making membership more appealing to more people, from suggested donations rather than membership dues to low cost membership for the first year or for people under 30.Give (and Take) More and more congregations are going into secular spaces to try to meet potential congregants who may have misconceptions about synagogue membership or may not know all that a community has to offer.

There is much talk about what young professionals need and want. There is more and more talk about what newly empty nesters need and want and how to engage or re-engage them before they walk away from the synagogue where their children were called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. As a caveat to this thought, I meet so many couples where one partner had grown up at a local congregation but the family had “dropped out” after the bar/bat mitzvah and now they need to find a rabbi for a wedding.

I have been thinking about a possible new model for congregations. This is the Give and Take model of membership. What if congregations said to the wider community that they want people to associate with this congregation because:

  1. You live in the area.
  2. Judaism is best expressed and lived in community, from study and worship to holiday celebrations and life cycle events. True, Judaism is a religion anchored in the home, but “doing Jewish” with other people adds joy, support, depth, purpose, and more that can’t be felt when observing at isolated moments in private affairs.
  3. This community needs you to share your talents. Judaism is part of your story, part of your heritage and consciousness, and the intergenerational make-up of this synagogue will be enriched by you. Yes, this is a selfless act of volunteerism to benefit others who share part of your story, who are your “extended family,” but giving in this way will undoubtedly fill you.
  4. The Jewish community will change and adapt and learn from you when you are involved.
  5. You will need this community at times in your life and we need you now.

The way it works is that the person, couple, or family figures out what yearly financial contribution they can make to help sustain this local house of learning, worship, social justice, and fellowship. The new member then decides what they can give to the community in addition to money. Maybe it is time teaching in the religious school, preschool, or adult education realm. Maybe it is time sharing a background in PR, marketing, branding, website design, etc. Maybe it is time cooking for communal Shabbat and holiday meals. Maybe it is time visiting families with new babies or sitting with someone who has lost a spouse. Maybe it is job counseling. Maybe it is yoga classes. Whatever you do, the synagogue should make use of it. This is the “Give” part of the membership model.

The “Take” part of the membership model involves taking what those feel is a benefit. If people feel that they benefit from having a school for their children and for them to continue to learn about Judaism, then it has to be supported. If people feel that they benefit from communal holiday celebrations, there has to be space, prayer books, leaders, music, and food. People have to figure out what they value and find ways to keep those things running with vibrancy.

I know there is talk about how some people can’t articulate even why to be Jewish. Not only do most young professionals not want to join a synagogue, they feel no reason to enter one, investigate what’s out there, etc. Finding a rabbi for a life cycle event is one thing, but going to a temple is a whole other ball of wax. Judaism and religion are not on their minds. They are thinking about where to live, whether they like their jobs, whether they should marry their partner, how to keep a good relationship with parents. People think about having fun, how to make friends, whether they are happy. People think about the homeless, about their health, about international affairs. The environment, gun control, and whether all women will have access to safe abortions are topics discussed over coffee. People are secular. They don’t think about liberal religion on a daily basis. As I am writing this, I am sitting next to a neighbor at a coffee shop who said, “As a working mom I am just trying to survive!” Volunteering her time at a local temple would not see fathomable.

However, I am convinced that if this model began, and the people who are inclined to take part in the organized Jewish world find meaning in this Give and Take model, then the joy and sense of purpose and connectedness that they would garner from the experience would spread.

You may read this and say that all membership is give and take. You’re right, it is (or should be), but it needs to be made explicit. It needs to be organized with thoughtfulness and individuality.

What do you think? Could this work? Would people feel more engaged and committed in this model?

And through this, I haven’t even mentioned interfaith couples and families. For the partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism and for their extended family and friends who may find themselves at the synagogue, the community this person was actively giving and taking from would hopefully reflect their values and ideals as well. When people are active, not passive participants, their vision becomes reality.

Are Attitudes Towards Intermarriage Changing, Revisited

Almost three years ago, in April 2010, I complimented the Forward’s Editor-at-Large, for an essay he wrote about a family member’s bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue. I said then,

It is heartening to me for a thought leader of J.J. Goldberg’s stature to say that it felt natural and necessary for a non-Jewish parent to be an integral part of the celebration of raising a Jewish child, to question “how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed,” and to give praise (very well-deserved, in my opinion) to [a rabbi] who “dared to open [his community's] gates as few other rabbis have done.”

When more Jewish leaders recognize that Goldberg’s cousin’s family — with an unconverted non-Jewish parent participating in raising a Jewish child — is not sub-optimal, but instead is a positive Jewish outcome equal to any other — then we will have a truly “changing Judaism.” I hope Goldberg’s essay will help move us in that direction.

Unfortunately, Goldberg’s current essay, How Many American Jews Are There?, makes me wonder about progress. In an otherwise fine and thoughtful discussion of Jewish population estimates, Goldberg mentions “certain new discoveries that are changing our understanding of how Jews view themselves that aren’t fully absorbed into survey methodology.” One of them is, “there’s a growing, still unmeasured tendency among children of intermarriage to identify as Jewish” — something that could certainly be taken as very positive.

Sadly, however, Goldberg adds: “perhaps because it’s fashionable in Washington and Hollywood.” Why the gratuitous slap at children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish? Does Goldberg think his cousin, who impressed him so much at his bar mitzvah three years ago, identifies as Jewish because it’s fashionable?

This follows on the Forward’s Editor-in-Chief, Jane Eisner, writing For 2013, A Marriage Agenda. In an otherwise fine and thoughtful discussion of marriage and birth rates, she gratuitously mentions being “haunted” by whether marriage-age children will marry other Jews — again with no recognition whatsoever of the potential for positive Jewish engagement that could result.

I would hope that leading Jewish journalists like Goldberg and Eisner would like to contribute to attracting young interfaith couples to engage in Jewish life and community. Making gratuitous negative comments about intermarriage doesn’t help.

Comic Wedding

Mazel tov to Kathy Kane and Maggie Sawyer on their engagement!

What’s that? You haven’t heard of them? What if I use their aliases, Batwoman and Captain Sawyer?

Spoiler alert!

In the DC Comic universe, Batwoman is Jewish. Towleroad reports:

Kathy Kane, the Batwoman, DC’s leading lesbian lady asks Maggie Sawyer, Captain Sawyer, her secret girlfriend to…be her wife. No idea how well that’s going to go down. And you have to read the build up to this — and the rather dangerous epilogue. There’s no guarantee we’re going to hear wedding bells.”

There may not be a guarantee, but if they do get to the chuppah, our free Jewish Clergy Referral service could help them find a rabbi or cantor to officiate the wedding. Well, maybe… We’ll need to find some fictional, 2 dimensional rabbis to add to the list!

Thanks to Bleeding Cool for the image.

Purim: Not Just for Kids

A few years ago, I went to my niece’s bat mitzvah and was delighted that they had a Mardi Gras theme. The room was decked out with tents, each one housing costumes for the guests. With lots of beads and masks, partygoers went into the tents and came out looking mysterious. I thought it was cute to celebrate Mardi Gras at a bat mitzvah. Then I realized it was all about Purim.

It was amusing to see the merriment. Guests were joking about characters from the Megillah, the Book of Esther that’s read on Purim: The beautiful queen Esther, the “starter wife” Vashti, the silly king Ahashverosh, the villain Haman, and the wonderful hero Mordechai.

I was so amused to think of the Purim story and see some similarity to Mardi Gras. If you took Mardi Gras and mixed it with Halloween, it would look something like Purim. Purim is a fun-filled holiday with a wonderful story of good guys, bad guys, kings, and queens — and it has a kind ending. But I had always thought of it as a holiday for kids.

This year, our synagogue is putting together a Purim program using popular music. It is based on “Saturday Night Fever” and a cast singing mostly Bee Gee’s music. Songs like “Jive Talkin’” (to Ahashverosh) and “More Than a Woman” are turning out to be quite adaptable to the holiday. I had thought that so many aspects of Judaism were for kids, but our community is having fun merging music from the 1970s with the ancient story of love and rescue. And the kids are getting a lesson in American culture, singing the infamous song by Kool & the Gang, “Celebrate Pu-rim come on!”

If you are looking for a fun Saturday night party with modern themes, and maybe some alcohol, check out your community’s Purim festivities. There are events for young and old, hip and square, kids and adults, everyone! You might just have a blast! Now if you will excuse me, I have to go dust off my disco shoes…

Rabbis and Intermarriage

I recently read an article, Debatable: Should Our Seminary Admit Students with Non-Jewish Partners?, in the spring 2013 edition of Reform Judaism Magazine. In sum, Daniel Kirzane, a current rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, says yes. His classmate, Brandon Bernstein, says no. You can read their rational online.

I’ve been thinking about their respective points of view. If Reform Judaism truly represents progressive ideologies, then I agree with Daniel:

The Union for Reform Judaism’s Outreach brochure opens with, “Intermarried? Reform Judaism welcomes you” and explains: “The prophet Isaiah said: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ (Isaiah 56:7). We know from the Torah that from the very earliest days, there have been individuals who lived with the Jewish community but who were not themselves Jewish….You are welcome.”

As a congregational educator and communal professional, I can’t tell you how many times the “active parent” in bringing a child to religious school or Jewish functions was the parent who was not raised with Judaism. Often this parent has made a commitment to raising Jewish children but for a variety of reasons is not Jewish. This does necessarily undermine religious participation by the family.

Brandon notes that “we have a covenantal responsibility to God, Torah, and Israel that extends beyond the self.” Reform Judaism does not propose to follow traditional Jewish law (halakha). Therefore, Reform Judaism does not have a covenantal responsibility. Already the URJ has evaluated and adapted its understanding of halakha to embrace patrilineal descent, welcoming children born to a Jewish father into our community whether or not the mother is Jewish.

It seems to me that it is time to evaluate this “rule” and consider permitting our leadership to truly represent our membership. I have found that the best leaders experience the same life experiences as their constituencies. Well over 50% of Jews marry someone who was not raised Jewishly. Won’t those families feel the most welcome and comfortable if the leadership and clergy of our congregations and organizations are the same as them — also intermarried?

Brandon also states that “applicants to HUC-JIR (the Reform Movement’s seminary) are not held to any standards of theological belief, ritual observance, or life choices.” The one exception ? “[An] agreement not to be ‘engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.’”

I propose that we hold clergy and professionals to a higher standard. A standard of practice of modeling Jewish behavior, lifelong Jewish learning, active involvement in the Jewish community, and living a Jewish life. And that this standard must be upheld regardless of who they end up partnered with, Jewish or not.

Love Is In The Air

Is an interfaith ketubah Legit? Love is in the air… (Is it wrong for a rabbi to say “happy Valentines Day“?)

One question couples typically ask me as we go over their wedding ceremony is, “can we have a ketubah even if my partner isn’t Jewish?” A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, a tradition that goes back thousands of years. I usually explain how they have changed over time as Judaism and society have changed.

The ketubah as part of the wedding ceremony for Jews who are not Orthodox has come back into vogue. For the recent generations past, the ketubah was sometimes seen in liberal Jewish settings as archaic, too legalistic, and unnecessary. However, in part because it is often a purchased piece chosen for its artwork as much as for the text, and in part because liberal Jews have begun to re-embrace and reinterpret Jewish traditions that had been discarded, it is popular again. (Where “again” is “for the last 4-5 decades.”) It is signed in the presence of witnesses who are close to the couple; it’s displayed in the home as a tangible memento of the wedding.

Traditionally, the two witnesses who signed the ketubah had to be Jewish, males over the age of 13, and not related to the couple. With a modern ketubah, the couple can pick whomever they want to sign it. Once we veer from a strict interpretation of Jewish law, I feel that any decisions regarding the ketubah can be adapted as well. Thus, as a woman rabbi signing the ketubah, I am open to having parents or siblings of the couple sign the ketubah, even if they aren’t Jewish. The point is to pick witnesses who are valued and trusted — the couple will be seeing their signatures for years to come, and they should elicite feelings of warmth, connection, pride, and love.

You may think that anything other than a halachic (and it’s always whose version of halachic) text to be absurd, a farce, or inauthentic. However, Judaism has always had room within it for descent, for adaption, for re-interpretation, and for adaptability. An interfaith couple that finds meaning in Judaism and seeks to imbue their wedding ceremony with Judaism, can have a ketubah — absolutely.

The question I ask myself is at what point does a tradition or custom get so altered that it becomes something else? Is it possible to appropriate such totally different meaning to a tradition that it no longer makes sense? I think that the original point of a ketubah was to write out the terms of the wedding legally and to protect each partner financially if anything happened to one or the other or the sanctity of the union. While a liberal Jewish ketubah or interfaith ketubah may not be a legal document within Jewish or secular courts, it is still a wedding contract. The texts speak about the parameters for the marriage in terms of hopes and dreams the couple share and in terms of the values each see in the other. So although an interfaith ketubah stretches this Jewish tradition far from the original texts, I do believe it is still within the spirit of traditional ketubahs and still meaningful and emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically binding. Signing the ketubah can be a beautiful way to begin a wedding.

What are your thoughts? Did you use a ketubah at your wedding? Do you hope to include a ketubah as part of your wedding?