Love and Religion is Starting in August

I have blogged about the workshops and classes that we offer through InterfaithFamily/Chicago. This time, I want to go into more depth about a workshop we offer four times a year: Love and Religion – Online.

[table][tr][td][/td][td] Developed by a psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling, Love and Religion is offered throughout the country, usually housed in Jewish community centers. If you are not in Chicago and you or someone you know would like to take part in a Love and Religion workshop, it is highly possible a JCC near you is or could offer it. Just [email=marionusher@aol.com]email Dr. Marion Usher[/email], the creator of the program, [/td][/tr][/table]to ask her where and when it is being offered. In Chicago we have already offered the workshop twice and we have two more sessions coming up in August and October.

This program is only four sessions long. It is meant for interfaith couples (where one partner is Jewish and the other partner is not (whether or not they practice another religion) or is new to Judaism) who are engaged or were married within the last couple of years. The first night we meet, we treat all of the couples to dinner in the city so that we can get to know each other. The next 3 sessions take place from the comfort of your own home: couples use WebEx’s video conferencing on their computers or smart phones. So, for four Thursdays you devote an hour to thinking about your relationship, about religion and spirituality, and about which traditions you find important and want to establish in your home.

The couples participating in the past two sessions have felt that their understanding of their partner (and other couples) increased through this sharing process. They nodded their heads as each one told of the feelings they had for their partner when they met; they shared so much camaraderie around coming from two different religions. For many couples, the fact that they are two different religions is not a big deal; neither family expressed concerned about this. In lots of cases, either or both partners grew up with family members of different religions and celebrated all of the holidays with joy and cheer. The specifics of theological or cultural differences seem minimal in comparison to the sense that they have found their soul mate. This workshop does not create issues where there are none. It does help couples come to articulate aspects of what’s important to them religiously that maybe they hadn’t yet thought about. And, of course, couples makes decisions about a whole host of major life issues over time and with change. This workshop helps set a foundation for making those decisions together as they arise.

The hardest part about offering this workshop is finding interfaith couples who are engaged or recently married. The workshop is normally just $36 per couple, but mention this blog post and it’s free! Please share this blog post with anybody you know who lives in Chicagoland if you think they would get something out of having an experience like this. Whether a couple is getting married by a rabbi, a rabbi and clergy from another religion, only clergy from another religion, a Judge or by a friend; whether the couple is getting married for the first time or whether one or both has been previously married; whether the couple is LGBTQ or straight; everybody should know that this is open to them. At InterfaithFamily/Chicago our goal is to reach interfaith couples with programs in which they can strengthen relationships, find ways to connect with Judaism and with the Jewish community, and to understand more about the role Judaism can play in an interfaith relationship, in ways that will feel natural, comfortable, accessible and meaningful to both partners.

I look forward to learning with you in August or October!

A Long Look at a Long Study

While I was away from the office earlier last week, the UJA-Federation of New York released a big, giant, whopping study of Downstate NY's community. (Downstate being, of course, the opposite of Upstate NY. That is, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County, Suffolk County and Westchester County.) More than 250 pages long, there's a lot to think about – and I'm still thinking. But there are some highlights that readers of InterfaithFamily.com might especially want to know about. I'm going to do a brief fisking, for ease of navigation.

From 1991 to 2002, the number of Jews in the eight-county New York area held steady, while from 2002 to 2011 it grew dramatically. The contrasting changes in the number of non-Jews in Jewish households — consisting mostly of spouses and children in intermarried homes — are even more striking. In the earlier period (1991–2002), the number of non-Jewish people in Jewish households almost doubled; since 2002, though, it has declined slightly, falling to 231,000. With respect to the slightly declining numbers of non-Jews in Jewish households, the Jewish population in the New York area sharply contrasts with most Jewish communities in the United States and, indeed, the entire Jewish world outside of Israel. In every other large Jewish diaspora community, rising intermarriage has brought increasing numbers of non-Jews — spouses, partners, and children — into Jewish households.

Are outreach initiatives working in NY while falling short in other communities? Are Jewish communal organizations, such as synagogues and JCCs, more welcoming and inclusive of partners and other family members who aren't Jewish in NY than elsewhere? Or is this solely a statistical game, with the number of non-Jews in Jewish households smaller in NY than elsewhere due to the large number of Orthodox (who have lower rates of including non-Jews in their Jewish households)? Indeed, the study attributes it in part to the high birthrate of Orthodox families, but also to the "dramatic increase in the number of people who consider themselves 'partially Jewish,' many the children of intermarriage."

Unlike major religious groups in the United States, major segments of Jews do not necessarily identify being Jewish with Judaism as a religion. Significant numbers of Jews claim their religion as “none.” This configuration is particularly common among the intermarried, children of the intermarried, and less engaged Jews, as well as Russian-speaking Jews. However, Jewish identity without religion is by no means isolated to these Jews; it is also expressed by those influenced by certain Zionist and Yiddishist movements in the United States and Europe. Still others lay claim to Jewish identity even though they maintain religious identities tied to something other than Judaism.

After reading the first two sentences here, I started to wonder about those Jews who have identified as cultural Jews for generations, but was reassured that intermarriage wasn't being (solely) blamed as I continued reading the last two sentences.

Growing up in Canada, our Jewish population studies are slightly different. According to the Canadian census, one is considered Jewish if one identifies as Jewish by ethnicity, by religion, or both. Additionally, one is counted as Jewish if identifying as Jewish by ethnicity and with a religion that does not require conversion (such as Buddhism, but not, say, Catholicism). Using definitions such as these, perhaps there wouldn't be a negative connotation to being Jewish but listing religion as "none."

Several factors account for the rise of the nondenominational segment of the population. One factor noted earlier is a decreasing attachment to denominational (and other social) identities, including political parties, consumer brands, nations, and communities. Another is the increased number of adult children of intermarriage — among the adult children of the intermarried, 65% identify with no denomination or a minor denomination, in contrast with just 32% of the adult children of two Jewish parents. A third is the increasingly porous boundaries that allow the entry of people born non-Jewish but who become identified as Jews despite never having gone through conversion.

This one surprised me. I'm familiar with the growing trend to move away from denominations. (Heck, I'm as engaged with Judaism as it gets, but pray at transdenominational or post-denominational minyans instead of synagogues of any denomination and regularly score low on Steven M. Cohen's scales. (One such example, where I score a zero.)) But I hadn't expected the statistic to be so much greater among adult children of intermarriage. I'd love to know more: Were these adults raised with strong ties to the Jewish community? Were they raised in denominations that recognized their parents' marriages? Recognized them as Jews? And when it comes to "minor denomination," why are Renewal, Sephardic, secular humanist, havurahs and minyans, and others considered lesser?

Further, how do these statistics take into account the likelihood of an intermarried individual who was raised Orthodox or Conservative shifting to Reform, Reconstructionist or "other" (or no) denominations after facing barriers in the denomination in which they were raised? If raised Orthodox but now participating in a Reform synagogue, because that's the only place they could find clergy to officiate their wedding, because that's where their patrilineal children are acknowledged as Jewish, they're now counted as Reform (though they might not identify as "Reform" nor "Orthodox" now). And with statistics skewed in this way, it perpetuates the idea that intermarriage isn't an issue for the Orthodox community (or Conservative, to a lesser extent), making it difficult to make inroads there.

as intermarriage rates persist or rise, and as Jewish group boundaries remain porous, we can expect further increases in the nondenominational, along with Jews who score low on indices of Jewish engagement.

Intermarriage is to blame? Shouldn't this read, "unless the Jewish denominational organizations make changes, start welcoming and including intermarried partners and families, we can expect further increases in the nondenominational…"?

3 in 5 Jews are congregationally affiliated, only 1 in 6 non-Jews living in Jewish homes is congregationally affiliated. The vast majority of people in congregationally affiliated households are Jewish (Orthodox, 99%; Conservative, 97%; Reform, 95%). Non-Jews in Jewish households disproportionately live in homes that are nondenominational and that do not belong to congregations.

How does this compare to Boston, where the federation (CJP) focuses some spending on interfaith families? Is there still such an extreme divide between Jewish households that are congregationally affiliated and households with non-Jewish members? In the footnote for the chart that fleshes out the above statistic, there's a footnote explaining that those non-Jewish (presumably intermarried) who said they identified as Reform were moved to the "other" category. That seems off to me, given the definition of conversion (below) that included self-identifying as Jewish with or without formal conversion.

By way of definition, we classify married couples into three categories.
[list]
  • In-Married Jewish Couples or Households — both spouses are Jewish.

  • Conversionary In-Married Jewish Couples or Households — in-marriages where at least one spouse is Jewish without having a Jewish parent. Not all such Jews converted formally; Jews by personal choice, in our terminology, acquired a Jewish identity by way of living in a Jewish family. To be clear, all “conversionary” marriages are in-marriages.

  • Intermarried Jewish Couples or Households — one Jewish spouse is married to one non-Jewish spouse.
  • [/list]

    It's nice, though not without controversy, to see their self-identification definition of conversion, instead of sticking to those who have taken a formal conversion route.

    This definition would also lower the number of intermarried couples, as those who have not formally converted, even if living Jewishly, are usually counted amongst the non-Jewish, thus forming an intermarriage.

    The “couple rate” is always higher than the “individual rate.” A simple example will clarify the point: in a population with just two couples — one in-married and the other intermarried — the intermarried couple rate is 50%, as half of the two couples are intermarried; however, of the three Jews in the population, just one is intermarried. Thus, for the same imaginary population, a third of the Jewish individuals are intermarried, while half of the couples are intermarried.

    Always good to remember this distinction.

    In 2011, 72% of all Jewish married couples in the eight county area were in-married, another 6% were conversionary in-married, and 22% were intermarried. This distribution is nearly identical to that found in 2002, when 22% of couples were intermarried and 7% were conversionary in-married. In 1991, 20% were intermarried. Over a 20-year period, then, intermarriage edged upward by a relatively small amount, but only in the first part of the period. In effect, the overall rate of intermarriage has stabilized in the eight-county New York area.

    22% of NY's couples are intermarried? That's much lower than the national average of 48%. I wonder how much their inclusive definition of "conversionary" lowers this stat.

    Intermarriage rates really jump among people who do not belong to a congregation.

    Let's look at this one differently. It isn't cause and effect (intermarriage leads to lack of affiliation). Rather, too often congregations and denominational bodies haven't kept up with the needs of their potential members. (Want to attract more intermarried couples to your congregation? Our Resource Center for Program Providers and Resource Center for Jewish Clergy both have great suggestions.)

    For the most recently conducted marriages, those who wed between 2006 and 2011, as many as 50% of non-Orthodox couples intermarried. This rate represents the first time that the intermarriage couple rate reached the halfway point, attaining a level almost three times that found in the 1970s.

    For the same period, 2006 to 2011, the individual rate of intermarriage of current Jews stands at 33%. That is, of all non-Orthodox Jews who married in the last five years or so, a third married non-Jews.

    This reminds me of how women are seen as a minority group, despite being a majority of the population. Can we start seeing intermarried couples and their families as a main Jewish population? Stop seeing them as the minority? Can we shift federation and other communal funding and programming accordingly? 

    On nearly all measures of Jewish engagement, the intermarried trail the in-married.

    I don't think we can measure them on the "groom or bloom" scale. And, again, I think there's a sizeable population of intermarried who aren't engaged because they do not feel welcomed with their partner and/or families at Jewish events, organizations, etc. It is the responsibility of the greater Jewish community to change this, not just the individual's.

    Among the intermarried, we find changes ranging from an increase of 5 percentage points (giving to a Jewish cause other than UJA-Federation) to a decline of 16 percentage points (importance of being Jewish). Double-digit declines also characterize Chanukah candlelighting (-13%) and participating in a Passover seder (-12%).

    This completely differs from the results of our annual Passover/Easter and December Holidays surveys, where we've been seeing increases.

    In short, from 2002 to 2011, the intermarried became more distant from Jewish life, especially when compared with the in-married.

    As a community, what can we do to change that? How can we meet the needs of intermarried couples and their families, make sure they feel explicitly welcomed in our Jewish communities and organizations?

    The vast majority of intermarried Jews are relatively unengaged in Jewish life: 70% score low or very low on the Index of Jewish Engagement (see Exhibit 4-22) as compared with just 22% of the non-Orthodox in-married.

    Again, I'm not sure we can accept these statistics as they stand. By an earlier study of Cohen's, I scored a 0 for "Jewish Educational Background," despite my heavy involvement in Jewish life, both at home and communally, for most of my life. They just didn't fit into Cohen's ascribed Jewish experiences. Is it possible for people to be engaged without paying for a synagogue membership, without feeling "very attached" to Israel, without "always" or "usually" lighting Shabbat candles? Yes.

    The Intermarried Are Far Less Engaged — But Not Because of Lack of Comfort
    The data from this survey demonstrates that the vast majority of intermarried respondents say that they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities. In fact, their responses differ just slightly from the other two groups examined here. The intermarried only slightly outscored the in-married (14% versus 10%), and their discomfort level equaled that of the non-married (14%). Thus, expressed discomfort with Jewish events and activities is not very widespread, nor do the intermarried express more discomfort than others.

    I saw this section heading and was surprised. When I then saw the statistics of discomfort compared to non-married individuals, it all came together for me. Like many groups within the Jewish community, those who are not married (by choice or because they are still looking) often report feeling excluded from community organizations and events. This goes doubly for those without kids (by choice or otherwise), who frequently feel shidduch-crisis">excluded for their decisions. And this is another example of the Jewish community needing to shift, not just the individual. Too often, the entry point for a Jewish adult into the community is their wedding or having a child whom they want to educate Jewishly. Not married, no kids? Those entry points don't exist for you.

    That the percentage of discomfort is so low (10-14%) remains surprising, given all the anecdotal evidence I've heard over the years, both personally and as a Jewish professional. Do people feel they cannot report feeling discomfort with the Jewish community on a Jewish community study?

    Over the years, opposition in the Jewish population to intermarriage and one’s children intermarrying has steadily declined.

    To learn how attitudes to this issue are distributed in the population, we asked Jewish respondents the following question:

    “Say a child of yours married a non-Jew who did not convert to Judaism. Would you be upset with that, or would that not upset you? [WAIT FOR ANSWER. IF UPSET, ASK:] Would you be very upset, or somewhat upset?”
    [/quote]

    Really? The two options for answers were "upset" and "not upset"? That's hardly nuanced! As Julie Wiener said, more response options were needed. Including, "something like 'somewhat disappointed' or 'depends on other factors, like whether or not they plan to be involved in Jewish life and what decisions they've made about how they will raise future children.'"

    the demonstration of the close ties between Jewish social networks and Jewish engagement helps partly explain why the intermarried as a group score lower on Jewish engagement than the in-married as a group, and yields implications for policies designed to elevate their engagement and that of others. It is of some consequence that the intermarried maintain very few Jewish social connections. Among the intermarried ages 30 to 39, fully 77% live fairly isolated from other Jews — no one else is Jewish in their homes and only 4% have mostly Jewish friends. In contrast, their in-married age peers not only have Jewish spouses and most have Jewish children at home — the vast majority (74%) also has mostly Jewish friends.

    The study's authors offer InterfaithFamily.com's model of connection (to other intermarried couples) and advocacy/education (helping intermarried couples and their families access and be included in the Jewish community, raise children with Judaism, and help the Jewish community become welcoming and open for these couples and families) as the solution to this low engagement.

    Chapter 5

    Much of the content that looks at intermarriage and its impact on Jewish engagement I've already countered, above. (See "groom or bloom" and read the full blog post that's linked there.)

    the philanthropic behavior of intermarried households is distinguished in three ways:
    [list]
  • • Many more contribute only to non-Jewish causes — 51% for the intermarried compared with 15% for the in-married.

  • • Far fewer contribute to Jewish causes (UJA-Federation giving and giving to other Jewish organizations combined) — 34% compared with 72%.
  • [/list]

    Could this be another statistic demonstrating the need of the community to change, not just the individual? If intermarried couples/families feel underserved by Jewish organizations, there's not much incentive to give to them. (If I'm allergic most pets, I'm not likely to donate to an animal shelter.) If the Jewish communal organizations of these eight counties of NY did a giant push to attract, welcome, engage, include intermarried couples/families, I'd like to think they'd see long-term growth in donations from this demographic.

    As compared with other Jewish households, in-marriage rates (87%) are far higher and intermarriage rates (13%) are far lower among Russian-speaking households, roughly half the rate for non-RSJ households.

    The explanation given has to do with their relative recent immigration, as I would suspect, which lends to tight-knit, ethnic identity-based community standards. A generation or two later, their American-born (grand)children are more likely to have similar intermarriage rates.

    ISRAELIS, SYRIAN COMMUNITY, LGBT, AND BIRACIAL AND NONWHITE HOUSEHOLDS

    Perhaps my favorite chapter heading, if only for its "we don't know what to do with these other groups"-ness.

    of those married, many more LGBT people are intermarried (44% versus 22%), and fewer belong to congregations (33% versus 45%). As compared with others, LGBT respondents (precisely, respondents from households with one or more LGBT individuals) score lower on all measures of Jewish belonging.

    This is disappointing, but not surprising. It's hard to find a partner, harder still if there are limitations (religion, gender, LGBT, etc.). If groups feel excluded from the general Jewish community, they're less likely to join congregations or other communal organizations, and score lower levels of "engagement" to formal Judaism.

    Biracial, Hispanic, and Other Nonwhite Households

    There's just so much to say for this section. Instead of hearing it from me, I urge you to read an article that Be'chol Lashon contributed to, originally published by the Jewish Week.

    I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. There's just so much to think about in here. What are your thoughts?

    Our Fathers

    Originally published on the Jewish Women's Archive blog, Jewesses With Attitude. Cross-posted with permission.

    In a blog post last week, Gabrielle Orcha asked, "What about the Jewish father? … Who is he really?"

    [table][tr][td][/td][td]With Father's Day coming up this weekend, we wanted to start a dialogue about the Jewish fathers, or fathers (who may or may not be Jewish) of Jewish daughters. We put out a call for Jewish daughters to tell us about their fathers. We'd also like to thank the folks at Kveller.com, who took up the call and helped collect these stories.[/td][/tr][/table]

    As you will see from the stories below, we learned that our fathers are Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and non-religious. However, one thing stands out in our stories: Fathers are involved and invested in the lives of their Jewish daughters as teachers, advocates, entertainers, and role models. Considering the legacy of Jewish women — their accomplishments and contributions recognized on jwa.org — we think they're doing a pretty good job.

    You'll meet 12 fathers in this post. If you'd like to add a story about your father, please do so in the comments. We look forward to reading what you have to say.

    My Episcopalian dad proposed to my Jewish mom on their very first date over Irish Coffee and she laughed at him. But, my dad had charm, and she agreed to go out with him again. And again. And again. And over the next eight years when he'd ask her to marry him night after night, she would shake her head and laugh. But then, one night, while stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway near the Wilshire Exit, she said "Yes." But with one condition: They would have a Jewish home." And my dad agreed. Every Friday night, we lit candles for Shabbat. He went to Torah class with our rabbi. We kept Kosher. And my dad's love for my mom allowed me to grow up in a home where I grew up loving Judaism.
    -Sarah Tuttle-Singer
    “What do you think is the nature of reality?” I gazed down at my untied shoelace, my skinned knee, the grass poking out of the sidewalk. “I dunno,” I shrugged. “What is it?” “There is no right answer,” my father said, his corrective shoes keeping time with my own. “But it’s our job to keep asking the question anyway.” My Daddy knows a lot, but that did not make sense. Questions should have right answers like in arithmetic.

    What l did know was it was summertime. I was seven. I had 27 freckles and two little sisters and Mommy was wearing the blue shirt again that meant another sister was coming. And after supper Daddy asked just me to take a walk. In the soft Ohio dusk I was initiated into the Big Thinkers Club. That fundamentally unanswerable “nature of reality” question, one that would eventually be posed to each of his five small daughters, gifted us with the chutzpah to shake our small fists at the limits of human knowing in a deeply Jewish way. It was, more than anything else, our father’s sweetest gift.
    -Deborah Fineblum Raub

    My father turned 90 in February. Every day and year are special because he is a part of our lives. My mother died when I was five years old, so dad was both mom and dad to my brother and me. Growing up, and when he had grandchildren, he was more of a kid than any of us, challenging us to enjoy skiing, sledding, hiking — everything with him and making it just fun!  He is going to meet his newest great grandchild, my granddaughter Orly, next weekend and his excitement to meet and influence yet another child in the family comes through in his voice every time we are on the phone. Happy Father's Day, Dad. You are one in a million.
    -Susan Raskin
    My Jewish identity became official on Dec. 21, 2009, with my mikveh – and three years after I lost my Catholic father to Lou Gehrig’s disease. My Dad loved my Jewish boyfriend the minute he met him (thanks, baseball!) and his support of our relationship never waivered. I see his proud face at our wedding, our son’s bris, our daughter’s baby naming. He did worry about our children not having “Santa,” but that didn’t last once he saw how much joy Judaism brought to our lives. I used to think I would never convert, but after I lost my Dad to a terrible disease, I knew I was ready. I had begun the journey and didn’t know it. He gave me a foundation of faith as a child, and a foundation of support for the path I chose for my family.
    -Michelle Breier
    My dad is my rav. While he is not a rabbi, he is the one who opened my heart to the beauty of Torah. I remember participating in minyan as a 10 year old, looking up at my father beaming with pride. It is because of my father that I am now going to become a rabbi. My dad’s passion for learning and living Judaism permeated my childhood experiences. My parents moved us to Israel, heightening our awareness of what it meant to be part of Am Yisrael. Years have passed, but our relationship grows tighter as we bond over our shared love: the love of our tradition. My dad introduced me to what it meant to be a committed, dedicated, and loving Jewish person. He is generous, kind, and smart.  As I become a rabbi this year, the ten-year-old inside will look up and smile. Thank you Dad, for instilling in me the love of tradition, Judaism, and Israel. I love you.
    -Dani Gobuty Eskow
    My father has always been a great father. Involved, loving, interfering when my mother has been impossible with me and my sister.  Insisting in the 60's that I be allowed to go march in the Vietnam Moratoriums, insisting I travel in Europe with my boyfriend after high school because it would broaden my world view. Sticking up for my sister and me when my mother is being critical. My father was a wonderful son and son-in-law, a loving brother, uncle, and friend. He talks to everyone, cab drivers and scholars alike. He reads news constantly and listens before he states his opinion. I am blessed to have the father I do. And my uncles and grandfather were also loving gentle Jewish men.
    -Marci Mitler
    One night when my father was about ten years old, he came downstairs looking for his mother. He paused at the top of the cellar steps. In the basement, he saw his parents and his maternal grandfather savoring a local delicacy — Chesapeake Bay oysters. In later years, my father would say that this night in 1933 marked the end of any real feeling he had for Judaism. He loved and respected his grandfather, a successful self-made businessman who was a pillar of the shul where my father would be bar mitzvahed and confirmed. But even as a ten-year-old, he knew hypocrisy when he saw it.

    Still, my father never failed to make a generous contribution to the Associated Jewish Charities every year; he was famous for his skill at telling Jewish jokes, and without ever using the words, he instilled a strong sense of tikkun olam in his sons (two) and daughters (two). Did he make the connection between the importance he placed on service to the community — a value he both lived and passed on — and his Jewish heritage? I wish I had asked him.
    -Ellen K. Rothman

    My father came from a large, Jewish family of extremely humble origins who lived in Kalisz, Poland. He quit school at the age of eight in order to help keep his family alive. He sold candy to street people, worked in a coal mine, repaired bicycles, worked as a fur piecer and madebatteries for cars. Eventually he became one of the top Schiffli embroidery manufacturers in northern New Jersey. He loved to work with his hands and worked to make things better for his wife and family.

    Ten years ago, at the age of 76, he told me that if he died tomorrow he would die a happy man. He loved his life … every minute of it. He could ride a unicycle, crack a walnut with his bare hands, and extinguish a candle with his fingers and and some spit. He enjoyed golfing, swimming, taking long walks on the beach, and watching nature documentaries (the bane of my mother's existence "Ugh, disgusting…I'm going upstairs"). He loved the mountains, the ocean, not to mention his wife, family, and friends. Max Smulen was a simple, beautiful, unpretentious, and humble man who took whatever card life dealt him. Luckily he was dealt a Royal Flush.
    -Terry Ann Smulen

    My dad is the son of Holocaust survivors, and for him, that is the basis of what it means to be Jewish. Growing up, my mom was the one who took us to shul. "Why doesn't Dad have to go?" we would whine. When I asked my dad if he believed in God, he would only repeat what his own parents told him: "If there is a God, I'd give him a zetz." But for him Judaism wasn't about belief. It was about family and community. It was about tradition and learning. It was about bagels and lox. I think I've always been an atheist, but thanks to my dad's strong Jewish identity, it never felt like a contradiction to be atheist and Jewish, and I am extremely grateful for this.

    In recent years, my dad has gotten more and more involved with our synagogue. He still doesn't attend services except on the High Holidays, but these days he takes adult ed classes, attends lectures, and soaks up everything he can about Judaism, Jewish history, and Torah. I'm inspired by his Jewish journey, which reminds me daily that belief is not a prerequisite for engagement with Jewish life.
    -Leah Berkenwald

    My father chose my name, and that cemented my connection to Judaism. He named me after his mother, Pruva, who died in Auschwitz. The “American” version of my name is Preeva, and it is on my birth certificate. Daddy took to me shul on Friday nights, and we came early so he could talk to his friends and show me off a little: He would say: “Preeva, explain your name.” And I would straighten my dress, and recite: “When God created man, on the sixth day he said to him, Pru U'Rvu Ee melu et ha'aretz, be fruitful and multiply and develop the earth. From that comes Pruva, which we pronounce here in America, Preeva.” He set an example for me by putting on t’fillin every morning before work, even when he worked on Saturday. He also took me to the Wailing Wall in 1968 and blessed me there. Unfortunately, he died when I was 16, but I turned out well. I was just named president of Etz Chayim, an independent liberal synagogue in Palo Alto, and I am working on a book about the facts of his life.
    -Preeva Tramiel
    My Jewish father is the one who has always taught me how to use his tools — many of which he has gifted to me, how to fix things, and how to make homemade horseradish. I know he is preparing me for the day when he is no longer with me and I love him for this. At age 91, his life is a blessing to me and I am grateful for every bit of wisdom he imparts to me, his oldest daughter.
    -Sue Kelman
    My zaidy was a Holocaust survivor. After coming to America, he rebuilt the life he had lost. On a literal level, he was a carpenter, so he built storefronts for a living. My zaidy worked hard to support his family, waking up at 5:30 a.m. in order to pray and get to the shop on time. He instilled Jewish values in his two daughters, taking them with him to synagogue every Shabbat and holiday and putting them both through Jewish day schools. Although I was not privileged to meet my zaidy, I was given the honor of being named after him. His Hebrew name was Naftali. In Kabbalah, the name Naftali is read as nafat li, which means “sweetness is to me.” Although I can’t imagine my traditional European zaidy would wholeheartedly approve of my Jewish feminist sensibilities, I certainly hope that he is proud of me, his namesake.
    -Talia Weisberg

    Muhammad Ali’s Grandson is Bar Mitzvahed

    Mazal tov to Jacob Werthheimer, grandson of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, whose bar mitzvah was celebrated recently. Jacob's parents are Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer, Muhammad's daughter, who was raised as a Muslim, and her huband Spencer Wertheimer, who is Jewish.

    On religion and her interfaith family, Ali-Wertheimer is quoted saying,

    "I was born and raised as a Muslim," Khaliah says. "But I'm not into organized religion. I'm more spiritual than religious. My husband is Jewish. No one put any pressure on Jacob to believe one way or another. He chose this on his own because he felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture."

    "The ceremony was wonderful and very touching," Khaliah continues. "The theme of Jacob's presentation was inclusiveness and a celebration of diversity. My father was supportive in every way. He followed everything and looked at the Torah very closely. It meant a lot to Jacob that he was there."

    Khaliah says proudly that Jacob is an "A" student and a good athlete with Ivy League aspirations. She also notes that the bar mitzvah of Muhammad Ali's grandson is "a wonderful tale of what's coming in the world."

    The article continues, noting that Muhammad Ali would likely agree with his daughter's view of the world:

    Shortly before lighting the Olympic flame at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he proclaimed, "My mother was a Baptist. She believed Jesus was the son of God, and I don't believe that. But even though my mother had a religion different from me, I believe that, on Judgment Day, my mother will be in heaven. There are Jewish people who lead good lives. When they die, I believe they're going to heaven. It doesn't matter what religion you are, if you're a good person you'll receive God's blessing. Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. We just serve him in different ways. Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along."

    If your family is starting to think about an upcoming bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah, or if you're wondering what it all entails, check out our new booklet, Bar & Bat Mitzvah for the interfaith family:

    Connecting With You, Chicagoland

    The InterfaithFamily/Chicago initiative began this past July. Since then, I have connected with clergy across the denominations, with religious school and preschool teachers working in Jewish settings, with Jewish communal professionals, with couples getting married and with interfaith parents with young children.

    With professionals, I have talked about how to be welcoming to interfaith families, how to be more inclusive and accessible. With couples and parents we have spoken about creating a religious life that feels comfortable to both parents and which leaves children with a strong sense of self.

    I have begun meeting with those who work with interfaith couples to plan weddings and other life cycle events that take into account two different cultures. These event planners figure out how both cultures can be represented in the ceremony, in the setting, in the food and in the ambiance. These professionals work with interfaith couples who may not even know that there are resources available to them in the Jewish world, nor Jewish clergy who want to work with them.

    Through all of these meetings, classes and workshops, I still know that there are so many who do not know that InterfaithFamily/Chicago exists and is here for them. I am on a continual awareness campaign. I even think about going to jewelry stores to meet people who help interfaith couples find engagement rings – they could tell the couples about our Love and Religion Workshops or wedding guide!

    One of the most effective ways of engaging is reaching out in partnership with Chicago's vast cultural landscape. For example, InterfaithFamily/Chicago is partnering with Spertus on a program that is geared towards interfaith couples engaged or newly married. On June 20 at 6pm, their beautiful gift store will be open with discounts on items for weddings and the home. Couples will enjoy food and wine as they shop. Spertus staff will be on hand to answer questions about the traditions behind the items and to share information about the artists who made them; they sell everything from menorahs to mezuzahs to blessings for the home. We will also enjoy a tour of the magnificent building, receive Spertus membership giveaways and more. If you live in the city and are engaged or have gotten married recently, please come by after work. Email me at arim@interfaithfamily.com to RSVP. This event is free of charge.

    Each Monday I am now posting a discussion question on the Chicagoland Community Page. One way I hope to get to know more interfaith couples and parents in Chicagoland is by reading your responses to my questions. I look forward to learning with you in this way.

    I hope to see you at Spertus, June 20th, and your responses, online, soon!

    Ashley Biden and Howard Krein’s Co-Officiated, Interfaith Marriage

    We saw the article, last week, about Vice President Joe Biden's futre Jewish son-in-law, Dr. Howard Krein. But there wasn't much interfaith fodder to go on. ABC reported,

    A rabbi will be in attendance, likely because Krein's parents, who are active supporters of Israel and have recently visited the Jewish state.

    I'd love to know the end of that sentence as well. Let's fill in the blank: because Krein's parents
    – wanted their religion represented?
    – insisted that Jewish traditions be incorproated into the ceremony?
    – enjoy seeing their rabbi in a suit and tie?
    However that sentence should have ended, that's all we had to go on.

    On Monday, we tweeted, hoping folks might know more details about the weekend's wedding. Our pal Kate Bigam responded to our inquiry today, pointing us to an article by the Forward. It fills in some of the blanks:

    The wedding ceremony, which was limited to 200 close family and friends of the bride and groom, was officiated by a Catholic priest, Father David Murphy, and a Reform Jewish Rabbi, Joseph M. Forman of Or Chadash synagogue in Flemington, N.J. Forman, a graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Learning in Cincinnati, Ohio, assures the Forward that the ceremony contained the typical elements of the Jewish and Catholic wedding ceremonies.

    “A Ketubah was signed. The couple got married under a beautiful chuppah, made of natural branches with a cloth covering,” he said. The wedding ceremony started with the traditional burach habim and included the priestly blessing and the sheva brachot. The groom stepped on a glass at the end.”

    Biden and Krein did not just go through the motions for a Jewish ceremony. Forman revealed that he met with the couple several times for prenuptial counseling.

    The co-officiated wedding was held in a church, a first for Rabbi Forman. To the location criticism he said,

    “I wish more of my colleagues, who were approached by interfaith couples seeking to include Jewish rituals in their lifecycle events, were more welcoming,” said the Rabbi, who is the son of a rabbi and has a sister that is also a rabbi and one that is a cantor. “The National Jewish Population Survey found that interfaith couples that had a Jewish clergyman at their wedding were more likely to belong to a Jewish organization than those where no Jewish clergyman was present.”

    If you're looking for a rabbi to officiate your interfaith wedding, we're here to help. We have a database of more than 500 rabbis and cantors throughout the U.S. and Canada. It's as easy as filling out our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral form. (It's a free service!)

    And "mazal tov" to the newlyweds, Ashley Biden and Howard Krein!


    [sup]Official White House photo.[/sup]

    Responding to a Recent Article About our Parenting Class

    Chai Wolfman, a contributor to OyChicago, recently wrote about the online/in-person class we just offered, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.

    She wrote that the great thing about having the material online is that she could come to it in five minutes here or there and get a nugget of content to ponder. Even though this class has ended, the material can still be accessed online. If any Chicagoland interfaith families with young children would like to learn more about this class, just email me: arim@interfaithfamily.com.

    Chai also wrote about whether it is possible to get to know the other families in a primarily online class, which was one of our goals. I think families learned from each other's posts, but building friendships can only happen if they see each other for shared experiences. To that end, I will continue to share opportunities for our community to meet in person, like the JCC’s Got Shabbat or PJ Library programs.

    The last point she made was particularly interesting: What does the term "interfaith" imply? I'm not sure how many kids use this term to describe their own family. Interfaith families run the gamut from families who want to incorporate both religions and traditions, to those in which one partner converts and they still feel that they are "interfaith" because they have extended family that isn't Jewish, to those in which one partner does not feel they have (or were raised in) any faith. When both partners are on the same page religiously they may feel that they are "just Jewish" or whatever other labels they give themselves. When families in similar religious situations can participate together in a program, it often leads to meaningful conversations about ideas that came up, what other people do, etc., and families often feel that having these affinity-type groups is meaningful. Congregations and communal organizations do wonder, though, what the best term is to use when wanting to reach all families across the interfaith spectrum. One congregation, temple-har-zion">West Suburban Har Zion, uses the term “multi-culti.” Whatever the term, I look forward to hearing from Chicagoland families who have a partner who is Jewish and one who didn't grow up Jewish or isn't Jewish: let us know what you are interested in, what challenges, if any, you have, and how we can better connect with you.

    Chai mentioned wanting to find a welcoming congregation. Check out the amazing congregations from an independent minyan like Mishkan to all of the Humanist, Reform, Reconstruction, Conservative and other congregations in your area on our Chicagoland community page.

    Lastly, as for requesting gluten-free challah as a pre-requisite for a congregational fit, this blogger is in complete agreement! Maybe fellow gluten-free families should have a challah-making group every Thursday afternoon. Or better yet, let's just meet at Rose's in Evanston! 

    All interfaith families with young children in Chicago, who want meaningful Judaism and spirituality in your lives, there are so many options and resources for you. Help us get to know you so we can point you in the right direction.

    Clergy Panel On Interfaith Marriage

    I had the privilege to sit on a panel Monday night, May 20th, joining other clergy in expressing our views on interfaith marriage. This discussion was sponsored by the Winnetka Interfaith Council. The panelists were: Jena K. Khodadad, Bahai Faith; Rev. David Lower, Winnetka Presbyterian Church; Rabbi Samuel Gordon, founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette; Rev. Christopher Powell, Rector of Christ’s Church in Winnetka; and Herb White, from the First Church of Christ Science. It was moderated by John Lucas, MAPC, a counselor with the Samaritan Counseling Center.

    Interestingly, the other clergy on the panel from Christian faiths and from Bahai had little problems with a Christian marrying a Jew. In fact, they emphasized Judaism as the root of Christianity and the parables of Jesus often mirroring narratives from the Hebrew Bible. They are not worried about the continuation of Christianity; they feel children in such families are doubly blessed. Interfaith marriage for Jews is so much more complicated, both theologically and because of the relatively small size of our community. However, when the progressive Jewish world thinks creatively, lovingly, openly, honestly and respectfully about how to make room for interfaith families exploring all aspects of religion, the Jewish community is indelibly strengthened and enriched.

    The following questions generated some interesting discussion. I’m sharing my responses here. Let me know what you think.

    In your experience, what challenges are there in trying to raise children of an interfaith marriage in both religions and what recommendations do you have to those who are trying to decide this issue?

    It is theologically impossible to be both Jewish and Christian. If one accepts Jesus as divine and savior, this belief takes the person outside the realm of Judaism. However, I do feel it is possible to be enriched by two faiths. I do think children can benefit from being exposed to the faith, traditions, customs, narratives and cultures of both parents’ current religious identities or affiliations.

    This belief is very controversial within the Jewish world. Many worry that children who grow up with two religions in the home will end up confused and angry. They may not come to affirm a strong Jewish identity. They may feel mixed-up and not know where they belong or fit in among mainstream religious organizations as adults. They may feel resentful of the need to “choose” a religion and feel that they will hurt one parent or another by “choosing a side.”

    However, this need not be the case. A Pew study reported that 60% of adults practice a religion other than the one of birth. Identity is fluid today. People go in and out of faith communities. Children who have been passed literary and a love of two heritages by their parents may feel blessed and whole.

    The challenges to raising children with an appreciation of two faiths is that they will be denied access to some Jewish organizations and other communal aspects of the religion, such as synagogue religious schools. These families will have to find welcoming synagogues, alternative havurot (Hebrew for fellowships, from the same root as the word for friends, this is a term used when families come together to learn and celebrate Shabbat and holidays together) and other avenues for being part of religious communal life including worship and learning.

    Other challenges will arise in how to understand the theology of both religions and how to involve extended family who may have strong opinions about what children should and should not be exposed to religiously. These kinds of religious decision-making may add stress to a marriage or may enrich both parents as each one seeks to get in touch with what he or she really believes and wants to pass on to the children.

    In doing premarital sessions with couples, what do you say to interfaith couples and what issues do you suggest that they discuss?

    InterfaithFamily/Chicago offers a workshop called Love and Religion which helps couples learn how to talk about religion in their lives. In a group setting, couples begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion. If you are engaged or newly married and would like to join in the next session of Love and Religion, email me at arim@interfaithfamily.com.

    In your experience, what are the keys to making an interfaith marriage work?

    Interfaith marriages need support and resources which are specifically designed for couples that come to a relationship having grown up in two different religions. InterfaithFamily.com seeks to offer content to interfaith couples through narratives written by others in similar situations about how they handle certain things, and literacy about the meaning of different Jewish traditions and observances so that both partners understand aspects of Judaism. As well, the Network enables couples and families to “meet” each other online and discuss challenges they may share. Parents and couples blog about their experiences as well. We offer free, downloadable booklets and other articles which can be shared with extended family so that everyone can feel part of the religious lives’ of the couple. Both partners may feel that they have been challenged to be open, honest, flexible and giving in ways they may not have anticipated… but many say that their respect and love for each other is deepened through navigating an interfaith relationship.

    Mazel tov, Mark and Priscilla

    As our friend Jason Miller reported earlier today, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and longtime girlfriend Priscilla Chan were married yesterday.

    A year and a half ago I expressed concern that the Jewish world was about to “blow it” again with a celebrity interfaith couple. At the time, a columnist had speculated that Zuckerberg was in love with Chan because she was not Jewish. I said that was ridiculous and offensive, and worried that we were going to see the same kinds of negative reactions to Zuckerberg’s relationship with Chan as we saw from Jewish leaders about the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky.

    Sure enough, Dr. Aliza Lavie, from Bar Ilan University in Israel, reportedly spoke out against Zuckerberg’s marriage and pronounced that “The children of another successful Jewish man will not be counted as Jews.” 

    Dr. Lavie, we beg to differ. There are thousands and thousands of children of Jewish men who count themselves and Jews, and who are counted in significant parts of the Jewish community as Jews. It is tiresome but necessary to keep on repeating this to Israelis – and to many American Jews too who haven’t yet got the message.

    We send a hearty mazel tov to Mark and Priscilla and we hope they will find welcome and support and encouragement whenever and however they may choose to engage in Jewish life and community.

    You know it’s official when it’s on Facebook:

    Teaching the Why?

    I attended part of the International Institute for Secular Humanist Judaism’s Colloquium at Northwestern this past weekend. The theme of the Colloquium was “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, explained that when Jews came to America the question they had was how to be American. Then, the community got so comfortable as Americans that the question became how to be Jewish. Now, the question is why be Jewish.

    Those of us who work in Jewish education spend a lot of time thinking up the most creative, engaging programming, using the latest technology to teach children and families how to do Jewish things. We try to provide Jewish experiences that form memories of joy and togetherness around holiday celebrations, mitzvah days and shared Shabbat meals. But, are we missing the forest for the trees?

    We may have fun baking challah and may feel good after volunteering in the soup kitchen. If we are lucky, we may help families see modern messages in ancient narratives. But are we passing on the greater meaning of the whole endeavor of Jewish living? Is meaning-making inherent? Can meaning be found if it’s not made explicit?

    Is teaching someone to make challah or latkes enough? Once the person makes them, do they automatically feel the meaning behind cooking that food? Can you teach a feeling of being connected to past generations? Can you teach someone to internalize the idea that cooking with oil, for example, reminds us of miracles all around us? Is it enough to talk about miracles without discussing what it means to then sanctify the identification of those miracles in real ways? Does learning how to prepare latkes compel someone to make them each Hanukkah with and for friends and family? How do we even encourage someone to learn how to make them if we don’t explain why to make them?

    Is it possible to “teach” culture and meaning? One can explain the story or law or ethics behind the tradition or ritual, but if the student doesn’t feel personally connected to, personally excited by, personally committed to, personally engaged with, personally moved by Jewish living, the whole pursuit of Jewish education is lost and shallow, short-lived and easily forgotten.

    I have spoken before about the need for Jewish literacy. One way people make meaning is by having a depth of knowledge about a subject. Ultimately, meaning-making happens when the person feels that doing this thing fills a void, creates an answer for, and helps them live good lives.

    As Jewish educators, we may need to take a step back and not worry so much about having the most unusual art supplies to make the coolest crafts, but spend as much time thinking about how to present the Jewish ritual object or anything else in a compelling enough way that our children and parents see that utilizing Judaism brings ultimate meaning to their days.