Positive Outlooks Greet the New Year

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

The discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating for interfaith couples has quieted, other than a terrible piece by one of the Cohen Center’s own researchers, that I blogged about separately. I’d rather focus on the positive responses to intermarriage as the High Holidays approach, and fortunately there is are five of them!

Back when Mark Zuckerberg was marrying Priscilla Chan, there were all sorts of derogatory comments from critics of intermarriage to the effect that his children would not be Jewish. So I was very pleased to see Zuckerberg’s Facebook posts showing him with his daughter in front of lit Shabbat candles, what looked like a home-baked Challah, and a message that he had given her his great-great-grandfather’s Kiddush cup. The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.

Second, Steven M. Cohen, in a new piece about declining number of Conservative and Reform Jews, says that arresting the decline “means encouraging more non-Jewish partners and spouses to convert to Judaism.” That’s not the positive news – the positive news is a much different response: the “radical welcoming” recommended by Rabbi Aaron Lerner, the UCLA Hillel executive director – a modern Orthodox rabbi, who grew up in an interfaith family himself. Rabbi Lerner writes that on college campuses, the intermarriage debate is already over – meaning that they regularly serve students who come from intermarried households, and sometimes those with only one Jewish grandparent, who they serve as long as they want to become part of their community in some way. Cohen could learn a thing or two from Rabbi Lerner:

Hillel and our Jewish community benefit enormously from that diversity.

Nobody can know for sure whether someone will grow into Judaism and Jewish life just because of their birth parents.

A Jewish student in an interfaith relationship may be inspired by our Shabbat dinners to keep that tradition for his entire life, no matter who he marries.

If these young students feel intrigued by Jewish learning, choose to identify with their Jewish lives and take on leadership roles in our community, they will be the ones shaping the future of Jewish life in America. But none of that happens if we don’t make them welcome and included members of our campus community… I understand the communal sensitivities to intermarriage. But it happens whether we like it or not. If we don’t give these young men and women a right to be part of our community, we risk losing them forever.

A third inclusive response is reported by Susan Katz Miller in a piece about PJ Library. She notes that PJ is inclusive—when it asked in its recent survey about Jewish engagement of subscribers, it asked if children were being raised Jewish or Jewish and something else; it also asked how important it was to parents that their children identify as all or partly Jewish. She reports being told that 50% of interfaith families in the survey said they were raising children Jewish and something else, and 45% Jewish only. She quotes Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, as saying ““This entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether it’s the exclusive religion in the home or not” she says. “If your family is looking for tools, and you’re going to present Judaism to your children, whether it’s the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.”

(There were other brief news items that are consistent with the value of an inclusive approach. The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent had a nice piece about interfaith families celebrating the High Holidays(featuring Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia), and the secular paper in Norfolk, Virginia had a nice article about Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill’s work with an interfaith couple. The national past president of the Reform movement’s youth group wrote an inspiring piece about how she discovered the Jew she is meant to be – revealing incidentally that she comes from an interfaith family. Batya Ungar-Sargon, the Forward opinion editor, notes the element of coercion in the Orthodox approach to continuity, with disavowal of coercion and embrace of freedom the point of being liberal. There’s also an interesting article in America, a Jesuit publication, When a Jew and a Catholic Marry. The author interviews four couples to illustrate different ways they engage with their religious traditions.)

In the fourth important item, Allison Darcy, a graduate student, asks Are Your Jewish Views on Intermarriage Racist? She had decided not to date people who weren’t Jewish because there was “too much pushback from the Jewish communities” in which she felt at home. A seminar on race theory prompted her to examine the implications of Jews’ prioritizing of in-marriage. For religious Jews who want to share their religion, it stems from a religious source; otherwise some amount of the conviction that Jews should marry Jews is based on ideas of racial purity.

It’s not a religious argument. It’s a racial one. It’s about keeping a people undiluted and preventing the adoption of other cultural traditions, which are clearly evil and out to usurp us. It’s a belief that it’s our duty to keep everyone else away, rather than to strengthen our own traditions so that they can stand equally and simultaneously with others. In my mind, it’s the easy way out.

Darcy acknowledges that the difference in Jewish engagement between children of in-married vs. intermarried parents – but aptly points to the Cohen Center’s study on millennials to say that “by encouraging engagement with the community, we can near even this out.” Her conclusion: aside from religious-based objections,

This idea that intermarriage is dangerous is a judgment, pure and simple. It implies that other lifestyles are inferior, and that we ourselves aren’t strong enough to uphold our own. And at the end of the day, it’s racist to insist on marrying within your own race for no other reason than they are the same as you.

The fifth item—I was startled by this, given past pronouncements by the Jerusalem Post—is an editorial that takes the position that Israel should allow everyone the right to marry as they chose, not subject to the control of the Chief Rabbinate.

If at one time it was believed the State of Israel could be a vehicle for promoting Jewish continuity and discouraging intermarriage, this is no longer the case. We live in an era in which old conceptions of hierarchy and authority no longer apply. People demand personal autonomy, whether it be the right of a homosexual couple to affirm their love for one another through marriage or the right of a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Dragging the State of Israel into the intricacies of halacha is bad for personal freedom and bad for religion….

… Instead of investing time and energy in policing the boundaries of religious adherence, religious leaders should be thinking of creative ways to reach the hearts and minds of the unaffiliated.

… Those who care about adhering to the intricacies of halacha should, of course, have the right to investigate the Jewishness of their prospective spouse.

But for many Israelis, love – the sharing of common goals and values, including living a Jewish life as defined by the couple, and a mutual willingness to support and cherish – is enough.

The Jerusalem Post endorsing interfaith couples living Jewish lives as defined by the couples—now that is another great start to the new year. I hope yours is a sweet and meaningful one.

Objective Social Science?

  

Taking a closer look at research and being objectiveThis post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

Michelle Shain, a researcher at the Cohen Center at Brandeis, has written a very damaging article about the Cohen Center’s game-changing study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, about which I’ve said, “The many rabbis who don’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples won’t engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.” Shain says she is a social scientist and wants people to understand exactly what the study demonstrates and what it does not—but she picks and chooses pieces of the study that support the apparent intention of her article to support maintaining Conservative rabbis’ opposition to officiation for interfaith couples.

The key findings of the study were that interfaith couples who had a rabbi as sole officiant were far more likely to join synagogues and raise their children as Jews. Shain’s main point is that those who chose to have a rabbi had richer Jewish experiences, so that the “logical conclusion is that their stronger pre-existing Jewish commitments led them both to seek a rabbi to officiate at their weddings and to engage in Jewish life after their weddings.” She says that on four measures, including having a special meal on Shabbat, there was no difference between couples who had a rabbi and those who did not after controlling for the pre-existing differences.

What she doesn’t say is that the study says (at p. 21) that after controlling for pre-existing differences, “intermarried couples who married with a sole Jewish officiant were still significantly more engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples on many of the outcomes discussed above. In particular, they were significantly more likely to raise their oldest child Jewish by religion, enroll children in a Jewish early childhood education setting, belong to a synagogue, attend religious services, celebrate Jewish holidays, participate in Jewish community activities, donate to Jewish or Israeli causes, and talk to family and friends about Judaism.” (emphasis added)

Shain also stretches to mention—without citation—a 2010 study that she says shows that officiating rabbis don’t have subsequent contact with couples, and take the standard pot-shot that without a random sample survey, no one can say anything about the impact of officiation on subsequent Jewish engagement.

Shain like anyone else is entitled to her views on policy, but is it appropriate to position oneself as an objective, dispassionate researcher and be selective like this? Conservative rabbis who oppose officiation have already made the pre-existing differences argument, and now have support from a researcher at the Cohen Center itself, when the key findings about raising children and synagogue membership aren’t touched by that argument.

I would urge Conservative rabbis to consider what the study very carefully does say, without claiming causation: ““Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.” That is entirely consistent with common sense and experience, which sometimes are as important as research.

Fortunately, there have been five very positive responses to intermarriage in recent weeks — you can read about them here.

Postscript September 19
Len Saxe and Fern Chertok have an excellent response in eJewishPhilanthropy, Neither Fact Nor Fallacy.

Chicago, My Home

  

My name is Rabbi Reni Dickman, and I am very excited to be the new IFF/Chicago director. In the past month, I have already met incredibly thoughtful people. I have also begun to expand my knowledge of the Chicago Jewish Community. I am very proud of this community. I grew up here and I am inspired by the diversity of creative and innovative programs all over the Chicago area. There is something for everyone, and I hope to help interfaith couples and families find the right opportunities to meet other couples and families, to learn and celebrate and to serve those in need as all faiths ask us to do.

My work in a small congregation in Michigan City, Indiana, taught me about small town Jewish communities and the closeness they offer. In a big city like Chicago, our challenge is to create that same closeness. My experience teaching in Jewish day schools taught me about reaching students in different ways and always identifying the big ideas and essential questions within any text we study. I look forward to exploring life’s essential questions with you and helping you come to conclusions that are meaningful for your family.

I am excited to explore life’s questions with you at significant milestones in your life and in the years in between. I have two young children, and though my husband and I are both Jewish and I am a rabbi, I have been surprised by some of the issues we face as we navigate our family’s religious life. I would be happy to share my experience with you, my successes and my challenges and to hear yours as well. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that it’s always better to talk about it. I would love to grab coffee, go for a walk, meet your family or loved one, or talk one-on-one. I look forward to hearing your stories and your ideas.

Wishing our IFF community a happy and a healthy new year filled with creativity, communication and inspiration.

Resolutions Your Synagogue Can Make This Rosh Hashanah

  

By Rabbi Robyn Frisch and Rabbi Malka Packer

Just like the approach of the secular new year, the approach of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a great time to reflect on the past year and to make resolutions about how you can be better in the year ahead. (Click here to read how Jewish new year resolutions are different from secular new year resolutions.)

We propose that synagogues use this time to take stock of how they’ve been welcoming and inclusive to interfaith couples and families over the past year, and how they can be even more welcoming and inclusive in the year ahead. One way to do this is to participate in InterfaithFamily’s Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI). But even for those not participating in IILI, this is a great time of year to come up with an action plan of how they can be more welcoming and inclusive. Below are suggestions based on a webinar on “Language and Optics” that we are presenting to IILI participants. These suggestions are the combined work of a number of InterfaithFamily staff members over the years based on our vast experience working with interfaith couples and families. What is your synagogue’s response to each of the following questions? Based on your responses, you can see where you have work to do.

  • Does your synagogue’s website have photos that present the diversity of your community—including people of color, members of LGBTQ families, mixed-race families, etc.? While presenting diversity, you also want to be sure to be honest and make sure to present your community as it actually is, not how it aspires to be.
  • Are all Hebrew words and Jewish “insider terms” that you use on your website translated and transliterated?
  • Is there an explicit statement on your website letting interfaith couples and families know that you want them to be part of your community?
  • Does your website have resources and links to resources (such as interfaithfamily.com) for interfaith couples and families?
  • Who can be a member of your synagogue? Where are membership policies stated? Are they clearly stated on the website or in a pamphlet/brochure?
  • Who can be on which committees in your synagogue and who can hold leadership roles? Where is this stated? On the website or in a pamphlet/brochure?
  • Are printed ritual policies with explanations accessible? Where are they? On the website? In a pamphlet/brochure? In a b’nai mitzvah manual? Do you also have clearly stated policies on all of the following:
    1. What role can parents and other family members, who are not Jewish, have during a baby naming?
    2. What role can parents and other family members, who are not Jewish, have during a bar/bat mitzvah?
    3. Can members who are not Jewish open the ark?
    4. If there is a synagogue cemetery (or local cemetery), can family members who are not Jewish be buried there?
  • Does your religious school handbook include information about children from interfaith homes?
  • Does your b’nai mitzvah handbook include information about interfaith families and extended family from other backgrounds?
  • Are resources for interfaith families (such as InterfaithFamily’s booklets on a variety of topics) set out and easily accessible?
  • Is there a guide to your Shabbat service available for those who aren’t comfortable with the service (b’nai mitzvah guests and others)?

 

Hopefully these questions can help guide your synagogue in institutional cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul) at this time of the year and encourage an action plan for becoming more welcoming and inclusive of interfaith couples and families in the year ahead.

To learn more about InterfaithFamily’s Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative click here.

#WelcomeWaffleWednesday

  

For the past couple months, as I’ve settled into our office space at the San Francisco Federation building on Steuart Street, I’ve been surprised by how few Federation employees knew where we were. Since InterfaithFamily is an organization of welcoming and love, I decided this needed to change.

We began by re-envisioning our space. Where four desks once sat, we now have an open space working area with a desk, conference table, coffee/tea cart and some comfy couches—all donated to us by the Federation or local friends who were redecorating their homes. We added some art, some greenery and a couple of great lamps that shine a natural light. Our space was ready to welcome visitors; now we just needed people.

Enter #WelcomeWaffleWednesday! A couple of Wednesdays ago, we brought in a gourmet coffee cart and waffle bar for all of the people who work in our building and the one next to us. With the delicious scent of waffles welcoming all who walked in the building and coffee so fresh you could taste it in the air around you, a diverse group of Jewish professionals joined us for treats and mingling. Along with introducing ourselves and our space to the building, we were excited to be blessed by our visitors.

About half of our guests, while waiting for their waffles to cook, participated in an activity where they decorated cutouts with words and pictures of blessing and good wishes. We shaped the cutouts like hamsas, a beautiful symbol of protection in Judaism and many other faiths and cultures. The hamsa, which is believed to protect us from evil, was enriched by the blessings of our visitors. They now hang on our walls along with our art, bringing beauty, love, community and blessings to all who enter our office.

Now that Wednesday is over, and the waffles are gone, I look back on these past few weeks and a smile creeps over my face. I know this office welcome was just the beginning of a significant number of meaningful friendships and partnership opportunities. And the success of our event leaves me with one important conclusion: We need more #WelcomeWaffleWednesdays in this world!