Are Attitudes Towards Intermarriage Changing?

J.J. Goldberg, senior columnist at the Forward, has written an important essay, Generation to Generation, Our Changing Judaism, that I wanted to share with the IFF community.

Goldberg was attending a family bar mitzvah at the Pelham Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue outside of New York City. He spoke with a cousin, a federation executive, who was “trying to figure out the next phase in American Jewish history.”  Then the bar mitzvah boy, a public school student, delivered an insightful homily on the Torah portion: “‘a religion can change and grow,’ Jon said. We’re not exactly the same community we were yesterday, he said, and our religion grows with us. ‘The Torah wants us to understand that.’”

Goldberg continues that the parents’ role in the ceremony was “downright astonishing:”

[W]hen the rabbi called them to the bimah for an aliyah, a Torah blessing, something new happened. … [H]e called the parents’ names: Geoff Lewis ve-Chana bat Yosef…. Jon’s father, doesn’t have a Hebrew name. He’s not Jewish.

Goldberg had been to b’nai mitzvah ceremonies where children of interfaith families “performed the traditional rituals as credibly as any other Jewish child,” but:

I’ve never before seen a traditional, old-fashioned Hebrew davening in which a non-Jewish parent was welcomed as a participant, honored like any other parent who brings a Jewish child into the covenant — perhaps even more so, since he was bringing his child into a covenant he had not taken as his own…. The inclusiveness didn’t stop there. Both parents stood before the open ark and offered blessings to their son — Anne in Hebrew, Geoff in English.

Goldberg describes his reaction:

At first it was a shock to watch. Almost immediately, though, it felt completely natural. Now I can’t get over the shock that this is still unusual.

He then makes two conclusions. First, the father was “one-half of the couple that raised this Jewish child. How could he not be part of the celebration, not share his joy with the community as his child becomes a man?” Second, “how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed?”

I think I was particularly taken with Goldberg’s essay because I spent most of the end of February and early March traveling around the country trying to raise funding for the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life. Two comments stuck with me and made me wonder whether attitudes are really changing. A genuinely welcoming Reform rabbi said that he did not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because he favors Jews marrying other Jews and thinks that by officiating for interfaith couples he is communicating an inconsistent message. The executive director of a Jewish foundation said he wants his children to marry other Jews and is not sure that InterfaithFamily.com’s work is conducive to that — although he wants to welcome couples once intermarriage has happened. Lydia Kukoff, our new Board member, told me that these are the same things she heard forty years ago, when she was a founder of the effort to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.

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 Rabbi David Schuck 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.

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2 thoughts on “Are Attitudes Towards Intermarriage Changing?

  1. Its funny. My wife and I were an interfaith family for the first dozen and a half years of our marriage. To a great extent, it was my daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah that made stop and ponder the idea of conversion. Up until then, I could mostly act along; I could perform most traditions and ritual at home. I could go to synagogue services (but not where a tallis, and there had to already be a minyan since I didn’t count) I could go to any synagogue sponsored programming, but not participate in their board meetings.

    When it came to the upcoming events surrounding my daughter becoming a Bat Mitvah, there wound up being a fair number of restrictions on what I could or could not do. (I think I could be on the Bimah, but the only blessing I would be allowed to say would be the Prayer for our Nation.) Should we celebrate this phase of a Jewish life my daughter was arriving at while denying my part in it?

    So I decided to convert. Instead of living a life “as if’ I was Jewish, to fully acknowledging the life that I was already living, and admitting really being part of a Jewish family and a community at large. I don’t think I would have done it if the synagogue we belonged to totally shut me out and kept me from being involved in the community. On the other hand, if there weren’t some boundaries that said “you need to belong to participate” then I probably would have just drifted along as I had been, participating but not committing.

  2. As the rabbi to whom Mr. Goldberg referred in the article, I would like to correct a mistake.  He writes that “[W]hen the rabbi called them to the bimah for an aliyah, a Torah blessing, something new happened. … [H]e called the parents’ names: Geoff Lewis ve-Chana bat Yosef…. Jon’s father, doesn’t have a Hebrew name. He’s not Jewish.”  I actually only called the mother (who is Jewish) of the bar mitzvah boy up to the bimah for an aliyah.  Her husband, who is not Jewish, stood next to her, but we was not called up to the Torah.  Mr. Goldberg seems to imply that the non-Jewish father had an aliyah, which of course, would be a violation of Halacha, of Jewish Law.  As a Conservative synagogue that functions within the limitations of Jewish Law, we do not do this.  I believe we in the synagogue are as inclusive as possible within the framework of Halacha, but this still leaves a number of significant limitations for the parent who is not Jewish.     

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