Why I Now Officiate at Interfaith Weddings

WeddingWhen I was ordained as a Reform Rabbi in 2000 I was certain that I would never officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I felt that as a rabbi, my role was to preside over ceremonies only for Jews. I was fully comfortable welcoming interfaith couples into the congregation where I worked and recognized that this could be beneficial for both the couple and the congregation. I accepted patrilineal descent (meaning that if the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish, their child is recognized as Jewish if he or she is raised as a Jew; in contrast, traditional Jewish law recognizes only matrilineal descent, insisting that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be considered Jewish) and so I recognized the children of all interfaith marriages as Jewish.

When a couple with one Jewish partner and one partner of another faith tradition would come to me and ask me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, I would say something to the effect of: “No. But I will fully welcome you into my community after your wedding and I hope that you and any children you may have will be active participants.”

For years, I was comfortable with this position—what I now think of as my “No. But…” stance. Over time, however, I came to realize that what many of these couples heard me say was simply the “No,” and not anything that I said after the “But.” While I thought I was being welcoming, I only looked at the situation through my own eyes, rather than from the perspective of the couple that I was, in essence, turning away.

I eventually came to see that the Jewish partner, who was coming to a rabbi and asking for acceptance and for a rabbi to be part of this major event in his or her life, could feel very hurt by my stance—as if he or she was being rejected by me (and by implication by the Jewish community) for having fallen in love with someone who was not Jewish. And for the partner who was from another faith tradition (or perhaps did not feel connected to any tradition), for whom this was sometimes his or her first contact with a member of the Jewish clergy, the first thing they were told was “no.” No matter what came after my “But,” it was often the “no” that resonated most loudly.

Fortunately, I live in an area where there are many wonderful rabbis and cantors who have officiated at interfaith wedding ceremonies for years, so the couples that I turned away were able to find other Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings. To this day, I have remained in touch with some of the couples at whose weddings I had refused to officiate, and I have seen what the power of being welcomed by other rabbis and cantors from the very beginning has meant to them. I only hope that there are not any couples I declined to marry who were so turned off by the perceived rejection that they did not seek out other Jewish clergy to officiate at their wedding, and then did not seek out further involvement in the Jewish community.

For me, there was not any great epiphany that caused me to start officiating at interfaith weddings, but rather it was a slow evolution. My evolution came about as I saw many couples where one partner was not Jewish–and families where one parent was not Jewish–being actively engaged in Jewish life and the Jewish community. It came about as I learned that things are not always “black and white” and that real life is about the “grey” areas–the complicated family dynamics, the fact that someone who practices one religion can fall deeply in love with someone who practices another religion, and so on. This is the complicated, messy–and often beautiful–reality of life. And I decided that rather than view it as a threat, I would view it as an opportunity.

About four years ago, I began for my first time to work with an interfaith couple in preparation for their wedding. I loved working with them and having the opportunity to discuss all of the challenges and blessings of their relationship. I wondered, though, how I would feel as I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with this couple. After all, this would be a new experience for me–something outside of my usual comfort zone that would mean doing something that for years I had professed I would never do. And you know what? Lighting didn’t strike me as I stood under the chuppah!

In fact, when the ceremony was over and I had a chance to reflect on my emotions, I felt great. I had participated in a sacred moment with this couple. I had honored their differences and celebrated their union. And hopefully, on their journey toward marriage, I had exposed them to some of the richness and beauty of Judaism and made them feel TRULY welcome.

In the last few years, I’ve been blessed to work with a number of terrific interfaith couples as they have prepared for their weddings. In each case, I have welcomed the conversations of complex issues of identity and belonging, honoring and sharing, feelings of gain and of loss. I feel that I have grown as a rabbi and a person from my connections with these couples–from embracing the complexity of life and the beauty of their relationships. I hope that they too have grown from our working together, both as individuals and as a couple.

My stance toward interfaith couples is no longer “No. But…” Now it is “Yes. And…” In essence, I now tell couples: “Yes, I will marry you. And I hope that you and your family will feel welcome and become involved in the Jewish community.”

I think that after hearing “Yes” from me, they are a lot more likely to hear what comes after the “And…” I believe with all my heart that if a couple sees the door to Judaism as wide open and welcoming, they are more likely to cross over the threshold. Rather than shut that very first door in the face of an interfaith couple, I now hold it open for them and accompany them as they walk through.

Why We’re Talking About Princesses: Long Island

Cast members Princesses Long IslandSince the new Bravo reality show Princesses: Long Island began a few weeks ago, many blogs have popped up in the Jewish and secular media berating the show and the network for its portrayal of Long Island Jewish women. The bloggers’ responses range from horror to amused disgust to acceptance. JTA has a whole guide to blogs about the show.

If you haven’t seen the show, it’s about six twenty-something Jewish Long Islanders who live with their parents, agonize over finding a husband to take care of them, and for the most part, do not work. They seem to have been encouraged to make Judaism a big part of the show, as they are constantly touting how Jewish their lifestyle is and making a scene over drinking Manischewitz and eating Shabbat dinner.

This all might sound harmless and hardly cause for alarm, if it weren’t for the fact that the women on the show are so horribly over the top in their dependency on their parents, men and money. More than that, they actively promote stereotypes about Judaism, and explicitly say that their lifestyle is typically “Jewish” and “Long Island,” when there’s nothing typical about anything they say or do.

When one cast member says that she’s a Reform Jew, which means “We’re not that Jewish,” what is someone who doesn’t know the difference supposed to think?

You may ask, if there’s so much already out there about this nonsense, why bother adding to the mix? Because I learned this lesson well: When something is happening that is damaging to Jews, or any ethnic/religious group, I have a responsibility to speak out. Am I being melodramatic? I don’t think New York Congressman Steve Israel (who represents the part of Long Island where the show is filmed) would think so. Yup, he’s blogged about it too:

“Much to my dismay, the characters on the show spewed gross generalizations about the living and dating habits of unmarried Jewish women. And the stereotyping didn’t stop there. In the latest episode, the characters get together for a Shabbat dinner, an important tradition in the Jewish faith and culture. As a Jew, I can say with confidence that this dinner was exactly the opposite of what the sacred Sabbath dinner is supposed to be. But for those watching unfamiliar with the holy meaning of the Jewish Sabbath, it is shown in the worst way possible, with excessive drinking and fighting.”

Thank you, Steve. Because I found the response of Emily Shire, on The Forward’s Sisterhood blog more than a little offensive. Maybe because she says she’s familiar with the types of girls portrayed on the show from her own Long Island youth, she’s now desensitized to their behavior. But I can’t really accept her passivity on the subject: “I wish I could rally more ire for this show and be more outraged, but I can only shrug and watch with the same curiosity I approach other reality shows.”

While I can understand Shire does not find the show shocking, she has to imagine the repercussions it has on viewers with less familiarity with this small, not-at-all representative group of Jewish Long Islanders. Shire admits that she worries that people will think of the cast as models of Jewish women, but then she refers to Jersey Shore and says: “Even when I thought little of the cast, I never thought of it as an overall reflection of Italian-Americans, and anyone who thought six twenty-somethings on MTV spoke for an entire ethnic group was probably already going to be unfairly judgmental and somewhat racist.”

Does that make it OK?

What Shire is missing is the large population of our country (never mind the population of viewers in other countries who have access to the show) who know nothing about Judaism. Whether the viewer is judgmental or not, this is not the first glimpse of my religion I want them to see.

Imagine if you are a Jew dating someone who is not Jewish, who perhaps knows very little about your religion. I for one would feel embarrassed if he or his parents watched this show. And while you have probably introduced your wife who is not Jewish to your culture, does it help you to welcome her into your faith when the stereotype that stands out about Jewish women is that they’re spoiled, ignorant gold-diggers?

To give you a taste, in the very first episode, one cast member asks to be carried to her car after a mani/pedi (by someone who works at the shop) because she refuses to walk in shoes without heels.

Of course the other side of the argument is that all of this buzz we’re creating around the show is only bringing it attention, and probably more viewers. Joe Winkler suggests on JTA that “Maybe, instead of taking up arms in boycott, we could do a lot more by just looking the other way and waiting for them to shrivel into obscurity.” And while that might be true, I’m with Israel, who says:

“I will not silently tolerate a show that paints Jewish women on Long Island with all-too-familiar and painful stereotypes—money-hungry, superficial, Jewish-American Princesses.”

Because I want Bravo to think again before airing another season of this show, or producing any other show that promotes such a negative stereotype of any religion or ethnicity.

I’m curious what other people think? Did you watch the show? If you are less familiar with Judaism, what did you think of how the cast portrayed the religion?

What Apple Stores Can Teach Synagogues

Apple Store

An Apple store opening in Chicago

A Reform educator in town, Vanessa Ehrlich, wrote an interesting blog post recently. She spoke about how much she has enjoyed the one-on-one tutorial sessions the Apple Store provides. They are a safe space to ask any and all computer and technology questions and receive easy to understand information that is useful and relevant in a friendly and supportive way. She wonders in her post what synagogues can learn from this model.

InterfaithFamily/Chicago will be joining with Philadelphia and San Francisco from November 15-24 to bring Interfaith Family Shabbat to each community. Philadelphia has taken part in this program for over five years with more than fifty congregations and community centers offering a program of interest over this time frame to interfaith couples and families within their community which is open to anybody who wants to join in. The programs have told the interfaith families who have made a commitment to that synagogue that their presence is appreciated.

Acknowledging that interfaith families have added to our community and may have questions, concerns and approaches specific to having family who didn’t grow up with Judaism and are now living with Judaism is important and meaningful to many. Some interfaith couples and families come in to a synagogue or community center for the first time as a couple or new family just to attend a unique Shabbat service or workshop because of the special invitation it provides.

Some congregations and the Jewish Community Center in Chicago are already planning their program for our first community Interfaith Family Shabbat. It may be interesting if some congregations offer “Ask a professional”  in which Jewish leaders can have a table set up under a tent or in a big room and people can come and ask the right person the questions on their mind. From Jewish cooking advice to spiritual parenting to Jewish mediation and ethical and moral questions to current events in Israel, what if there was an open “Find your answers here” type of day?  Or at least within Judaism, it might be a “Get more questions” day as opposed to simple answers—this could be especially true if one expert answers questions about theology!

Check at interfaithfamily.com/chicago for the events that are being planned already for this November (as well as events happening right now in Chicago of interest).

How We’re Alienating Our Youth

As the new managing editor at InterfaithFamily, I want our blog to be a place where our readers can find out about the “interfaith conversation” that’s happening when it happens in the Jewish and secular media. Yesterday, 21-year-old Rachel Cohen wrote an informed piece on The Daily Beast, “Why Jews Should Stop Worrying About Intermarriage,” challenging Jewish communal leaders to essentially, be less offensive. She speaks to the inclusion we at IFF are working toward much more succinctly than I could, and she speaks directly for her generation:

“We want to live in a society where people can and should marry whomever they love. Consequently, we want those partnerships to be welcomed with open arms by our government, and by our communities.”

Cohen is getting clear messages from the Jewish community. But they’re not the ones she wants to hear: We support you, as long as you marry another Jew.

Interfaith marriage is not the problem, as Cohen sees it. Alienating America’s Jewish youth from Jewish communal life is.

Read her whole essay here.

Baby Blessings

My weekend was full of babies – and beautiful ways to welcome them into the world.

Saturday started off with a baby naming ceremony for my cousin’s daughter. My cousin is in an interfaith marriage, and they are raising their children Jewish. When it was time for her aliyah (the honor of being called to say the blessing over the Torah reading), the rabbi invited the whole family up, even getting a chair for the new big brother to stand on so he could see the Torah and be part of what was going on. The whole congregation seemed to share in the joy as we welcomed this family and their adorable little girl into the community.

Bracelets for Indian Baby CeremonyLater that afternoon, I attended a “baby blessing” party for a friend of mine who is due in July. Neither she nor her husband is Jewish, but they invited all of the guests to share a blessing, poem or song in honor of the parents-to-be and their baby. The husband’s family is from India so they actually incorporated part of a traditional Indian baby blessing ceremony into the afternoon. The women were invited to paint my friend’s cheeks with sandalwood and her forehead with vermilion. We placed bracelets on her arms and the baby is supposed to be able to hear the clinking sound of the bracelets in the womb. We offered words or songs of blessing for the new parents and for a safe birth.

When I was trying to figure out what words I could offer, I looked at some of InterfaithFamily’s materials, including our Brit Bat booklet. There I found a familiar prayer—the Shehekhiyanu—said whenever you experience something new or do something for the first time. This was the perfect blessing for me to say in honor of all the friends and family that were gathered for the ceremony and in honor of my friends’ first born! I was glad to be able to offer something from my Jewish tradition that could resonate with everyone there.

The day was another reminder to me of the beauty of Judaism and the ways it can help us add meaning and joy to the special moments of our life.

Growth at Israel in the Gardens

Booth at eventFor the first time InterfaithFamily/San Francisco Bay Area had a booth at the Jewish Community Federation’s annual Israel in the Gardens event. The event, which draws 15,000 people, once again took place at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, next to the Metreon and across the street from The Contemporary Jewish Museum. Israel in the Gardens brings together folks from across the community, Jews, their friends and allies, and sometimes just a passerby. There are also those who do not support Jewish causes and/or Israel, and they can be found picketing just outside Yerba Buena, easy to ignore once you pass through security.

Before the event, we prepared ourselves to respond to individuals who may not agree with what we do. Thankfully, we had only one individual who challenged our work (or their perception of what we do). The conversation remained cordial and he walked away.

Israel in the Gardens logoMany visitors signed up for our bi-weekly eNewsletter and an online profile on our Network. They discovered the classes and workshops that we offer, including: Raising a Child with Judaism, Preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah with your Interfaith Family, and Love & Religion – Online. They were pleased to find out that we offer a clergy referral service for couples getting married and those looking for Jewish clergy to officiate at lifecycle events.

The highlights were the many great conversations with interested folks. One person walked by and just gave us a thumbs-up sign. He didn’t need to stop and talk, but wanted to show his support. Another individual walked by, stopped momentarily to say “thank you for doing what you do.” One person stopped at our table to tell us his story of getting married to a wonderful woman 40 years ago, and the challenge they faced of finding a rabbi (back then). His wife was not raised Jewish and theirs was an interfaith wedding. They did find a rabbi, and were scheduled to get married at Glide Memorial Church with an Episcopalian Priest co-officiating. At the last minute, the priest’s diocese would not allow him to officiate, so they were married by a rabbi in the church. Forty years later, they are still happily married. I wish the same happiness for all couples and InterfaithFamily is here to help you succeed!

Grow with us seedsVisitors took home Forget-Me-Not seeds so that they can “Grow with us” as InterfaithFamily/SF Bay Area continues to impact the community. We look forward to growing with you!

The Invasion of Skokie

In discussing interfaith marriage, language matters. I was reminded of this truth in watching the play Invasion of Skokie. The play pivots on the 1978 Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois. At the time, Skokie had a very high percentage of Holocaust survivor residents. The American Nazi party petitioned the city of Skokie for the right to hold the march there.

When the city granted the motion on the grounds of free speech, the city erupted in tension. Jews were on both sides of the issue. Some strong free speech advocates contended that no matter how heinous and offensive the Nazi message was, the First Amendment guaranteed them the right to march. A larger group, including many survivors, condemned the march and, according to the play, took up arms as a means of defense.

The play revolves around one family in which this tension plays out. The father opposes the march and works with a group arming themselves to fight the Nazis. His daughter supports the rights of the marchers, even as she finds their message horrible. The third character is known as the “Shabbos Goy,playing on an ancient (and to our ears, a very offensive) designation of a non-Jewish person who turns lights and stoves on and off in a Jewish home or synagogue on Sabbath when observant Jews are forbidden from doing so.

Eventually the daughter falls in love with him, and tension begins to play out between the father and daughter. When they ask for his blessing for their marriage, the father says no unless he converts. All of this story is playing against the background of the Nazi march. The fiancé says no to conversion, explaining that he does not share their faith even as he loves their daughter and respects Judaism.

As I led a discussion group after the play, I realized the importance of language in speaking to interfaith couples. Had the father not dismissed the potential marriage or focused immediately on conversion, I think the couple would have responded differently. Their relationship with him would have played out differently. We would have experienced a more honest and open discussion.

That is one of the lessons we teach at InterfaithFamily. When we see the issues of Jewish identity and family in black and white terms; when we think that conversion is the only way to have Judaism in the home, we often close the doors for future Jewish life.

The play brought up many feelings some still hold. If we care about passing on Judaism to the next generation, then we have to listen, accept and love. We fill find that there will be openings for Judaism to live vibrantly for couples and families who have been welcomed and supported.

Genetic Screening: Why you should consider it

Couple with a counselorWhen you fall in love and decide that your partner is going to be the person you want to share your life with, life can seem blissful. If you start thinking about children, the future seems rosy and exciting. Some of you might be aware that the Jewish population may be at risk for certain genetic diseases. When a couple is from two different religious backgrounds, a they may think they are in the clear. A mix of genes from a variety of cultures should lead to a more robust gene pool, they think. Remember we learned in high school that both parents have to carry the gene for the child to be at risk. So an interfaith couple should be unlikely to produce a child with genetic issues, right? Maybe not.

I recently saw a news story that members from the Irish community were having children with Tay Sachs (a genetic disease that can occur with people from eastern European descent). This got me thinking. Do all of us truly know who our great, great, great grandparents were? Is there a chance that our ancestors left Spain in 1492? Is there a chance that one of our ancestors was born to Jewish parents but decided to become another religion to avoid religious persecution? I realized, this entire country was founded upon the basis of freedom of religion! Obviously, throughout the world, the freedom to practice one’s religion has been (and in many places continues to be) at risk. So chances are high that one of our ancestors could have been from a different religion or culture. With such a possibility, it makes sense that we might not truly know our genetic makeup. When I think about it further, anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years. So the chances that an ancestor was Jewish and then converted to another religion to avoid persecution is possibly quite high.

At the Victor center, statistics say that one in four Jews is a carrier for at least one of 19 preventable Jewish genetic diseases. The mission of the Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases is to ensure ongoing access to comprehensive genetic education, counseling services and screenings. This is accomplished through Jewish community education programs and screening programs for healthy individuals at risk for being carriers of a gene mutation for any one of these diseases. The Victor Center recommends that the Jewish partner be tested first. If the Jewish partner has no issues, then there is no need for additional genetic testing.

It is obviously a scary proposition to think about “what if” and what decisions that might need to be made if there is a problem. That is the point of testing. Then you know and can move forward. More important, once you know that you are in the clear, you can stop worrying about genetic diseases. Genetic counselors can explain all the issues, risks and options. Genetic testing is a simple blood test but it can provide peace of mind. With peace of mind, you can start focusing on the other exciting aspects of upcoming parenthood.

If both are carriers, what are the reproductive options?

There are many reproductive options available to carrier couples, including prenatal diagnosis (chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis), pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, gamete donation and adoption. Genetic counseling is recommended to learn more about all of the reproductive options. To speak with the genetic counselor at The Victor Center, please call (215) 456-8722. Additionally, your rabbi or other clergy may be able to provide insight and help in making these decisions.Everyone is different and every couple is different. The point is this: You and your partner should just think about being tested. It is a good discussion to have and there are genetic counselors ready to help no matter what you decide.

Read one couple’s story about coping with genetic disease