Remembering Leonard Wasserman


One of my heroes died last week, on October 7, erev Yom Kippur.

Leonard Wasserman was unique in my experience. He is the only Jewish lay leader I’ve ever known who became passionate about engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and then created an organization that works to do just that – Interfaithways.

I first met Leonard when the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly was last held in Philadelphia, in 2002. Rabbi Rayzel Raphael was escorting Leonard around the GA; he was on a mission to learn as much as he could about what was being done around the country to engage interfaith families. I don’t know exactly how old Leonard was, but even back in 2002 he appeared to be pretty elderly, and he was quite hard of hearing, but he was insatiably curious about our field.

That was a common theme over the nine years that I knew him – he always wanted to be current, to know if anything new was happening that could be put into use in Philadelphia. I think he attend every JOI national conference on outreach. He regularly wanted to take a train up to New York to meet with me there. A year or two ago Leonard asked if I could set up a meeting for him with Barry Shrage, head of the Boston federation and the most visionary leader in the federation world when it comes to engaging interfaith families. Probably well into his 80’s by then, Leonard flew to Boston with his wonderful colleague Rabbi Mayer Selekman, and continued to ask what the best practices were and how he could bring them to his home town.

I asked Leonard once why he cared so much about engaging interfaith families. The amazing thing to me is that none of Leonard’s four children were intermarried. He told me that he and his beloved wife Dorothy were honored one year by Philadelphia’s Jewish Family & Children’s Service. He said, smiling, that of course when one is honored, one is expected to give more money. He asked what the JF&CS needed, and the executive director at the time, Drew Staffenberg, said they wanted to get into providing programming for interfaith couples. So Leonard and Dorothy agree to fund the program that eventually grew into Interfaithways, housed for several years at the JF&CS, and then as an independent non-profit.

Leonard was unique in that he didn’t come to the issue out of personal experience – it was suggested to him, he studied it, he realized how important it was, and he took it way beyond the expected initial gift, to many years of supporting the organization that he created. And, sadly, he was unique in that I’m not aware of any other Jewish lay leader who single-handedly created and largely funded an organization dedicated to the cause of engaging interfaith families. It is too bad that there haven’t been any other leaders like him.

Over the years Leonard had some wonderful people working at Interfaithways. He did attract some foundation and individual support, but he was disappointed that the cause of engaging interfaith families did not attract significant funding from the Philadelphia community as a whole. Despite those setbacks, he never gave up and was determined to keep Interfaithways going.

This summer when I learned Leonard was failing I sent him a note. I told him I was sorry that the progress towards engaging interfaith families had been so slow, but that I was confident that we would get there some day, and when we did, he would have played an important role.

On a personal level, Leonard was a kind and gracious and generous man. I remember very well visiting him at his homes in Florida and in Bala Cynwyd, and I remember him driving me to lunch at the nearby Jewish deli– I don’t know if it was Hymie’s, or Murray’s, or Katz’s, but it was good. I will miss him very much.

Choosing Life in the New Year, Part 2


I just read my friend Julie Wiener’s latest blog post put up just before Yom Kippur, Bad Day at the Mikveh, Good Day at the Beach. I usually agree with Julie but I’m not sure in this case.

Jessica Langer-Sousa, a Jewish woman who was intermarrying, wrote in the  Huffington Post that she was rebuffed by a mikveh lady who told her that her marriage would not be recognized in the eyes of God.

I don’t think Julie let the mikveh lady off too easily – she says the mikveh lady “no doubt behaved inappropriately and rudely: she could easily (and with no compromise to her own morals) have politely explained her concerns, then referred Langer-Sousa elsewhere” and she says that “Representatives of Jewish institutions do need to be welcoming and respectful.”

But I think she shifts blame to Langer-Sousa or tries to equalize blame when she says that “respect also has to be a two-way street. It’s not fair to expect everyone to agree with you, particularly when you are on their turf and your behavior violates something they hold sacred” and “I think it’s also important for individual Jews to give others the benefit of the doubt and not overreact to a single negative encounter.”

That doesn’t sit right with me. It’s like the editors of the Jerusalem Post in today’s editorial saying that intermarriage “plagues” the Diaspora and that there is declarative value in legislation to prevent it. Interfaith couples who are seeking Jewish connection and engagement – people like Langer-Sousa, who remember was wanting to go to a mikveh in advance of her wedding – shouldn’t have to experience the judgmental condemnation of the editors of the Jerusalem Post, or people like this mikveh lady.

Choosing Life in the New Year


When I was in sixth grade I won my Hebrew school’s essay contest by writing that Yom Kippur was my favorite Jewish  holiday. I figured — correctly, because I won — what kid would choose Yom Kippur?

But Yom Kippur was and still is my favorite holiday and it was a good one for me. The services and community at temple-shalom-of-newton/">Temple Shalom of Newton were meaningful and sustaining for me.

I woke up this morning still hungry, made my favorite breakfast, opened my computer, and found a lovely — I’m being sarcastic here — editorial from the Jerusalem Post, Debating Civil Marriage, with this lovely (sarcasm again) quote:

Though according to recent surveys of Jewish Israeli opinion, this is no longer the case, there was once a strong consensus that Israel, as the sovereign nation of the Jewish people, has an obligation to fight intermarriage through legislation that encourages Jews to marry other Jews. Intermarriage and assimilation plague Jews of the Diaspora. The State of Israel should reflect through its laws the desire of the Jewish people to maintain continuity. Admittedly, preventing Jews from marrying non-Jews through legislation or a lack thereof will not stop intermarriage. Love will overcome any obstacle. But the fact that the State of Israel does not officially condone intermarriage has some declarative value.

This is so wrong on so many levels. “Intermarriage plagues Jews of the Diaspora” and runs counter to maintaining continuity? Israeli leaders continue not to understand intermarriage in North America, that many interfaith families are engaging in Jewish life and are actively creating continuity. My op-ed in the Jerusalem Post to that effect two years ago apparently didn’t impress the editors (at least they publish contrary opinions).

“Love will overcome any obstacle;” legislation won’t stop intermarriage? The editors got that right — but they support that legislation any way — because it has “some declarative value”? What “declarative value” does it have exactly? If it won’t stop intermarriage, the declarative value is that it will alienate the interfaith couples who have to work around it in Israel. And worse, from my point of view, it will discourage interfaith couples in North America, especially the partners who are not Jewish who do want to be involved in Jewish life and community. Who would want to be part of a community whose intellectual leaders do not want them?

At my services at Temple Shalom yesterday, I saw at least seven interfaith couples, and those are just the ones who I know well, and I saw several parents whose intermarrying children have used’s Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. Yesterday, Yom Kippur, two couples, one in California and one in Pennsylvania, made requests for rabbis to officiate and to co-officiate at their weddings. The central lesson of Yom Kippur, as I understand it, is to “choose life.” For me, those interfaith couples at services and seeking Jewish clergy for their weddings are choosing Jewish life. The editors of the Jerusalem Post – they aren’t.

I try to be hopeful, especially at the start of a new year. There is a glimmer of hope in the editorial – apparently there is no consensus among the Israeli public that legislation aimed at preventing intermarriage makes sense. My hope is that that point of view grows and ultimately prevails.

New Year, New Decade, Inc. was incorporated on October 4, 2001 – almost exactly ten years ago. Looking back – appropriate during this High Holiday period – it was an expression of hope. Hope that we could do work that effectively would support interfaith families to find value and meaning in engaging in Jewish life, and influence Jewish communities to welcome them. Looking forward – also timely now – are our goals realistic? Are our efforts needed?

Last night our friend Ron Klain forwarded judaism.html?obref=obinsite">a great story from The Daily Beast about Meet the Press host David Gregory, who was “raised Jewish by his Jewish father and non-Jewish mother.” Gregory’s wife Beth Wilkinson is not Jewish and decided not to convert but agreed to help educate their children. She “encouraged Gregory to understand more about Judaism” and her questions prompted David’s resolve to find answers through serious Jewish learning.

For NBC’s David Gregory, if it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press. If it’s Friday night, it’s Shabbat with his wife and three young children…Gregory has committed not just to exposing his children to Judaism, but to making it a part of the air they breathe… That includes saying the Sh’ma Yisrael prayer with them before bed.

Stories like this one – and we hear many at IFF – renew my conviction that Jewish life can be accessible to interfaith families and can add value and meaning to their lives. It’s a great way to start a new year – and a new decade for IFF.

On the community side, in a recent op-ed in the New York Jewish Week, Misha Galperin, who wrote a book about peoplehood, is disappointed with the lack of conversation about peoplehood, and thinks the word “peoplehood” itself has not caught on, is not warm and fuzzy, and may be to blame. He had hoped the book would spark discussion about “what we can do to bring people together with diverse Jewish commitments,” but in the book the goals he set for interactions were to:

connect Jews to other Jews; engender the feeling of belonging; make Jewish learning/values part of what we do and relevant to who we are; provide venues for Jewish meaning that raise the threshold of Jewish intensity; advance notions of responsibility; and model warmth and inclusivity.

By making the first goal to connect Jews to other Jews, Misha undermines his nod to people with diverse Jewish commitments – because there are a lot of people with Jewish commitments who are not Jews. Peoplehood is a hard concept for them. I don’t know how Beth Wilkinson feels about this – but many people in her position would say “I’m not a Jew so I guess I’m not part of the Jewish people.” A better word that peoplehood is community – maybe “communality” would be even better. Because I hope people like Beth Wilkinson would say “I certainly do feel that I’m part of the Jewish community – and doing something very important to support it.”

It’s fine if a program “connects Jews to other Jews,” but making that the explicit or perceived goal is a mistake because it is a turn-off to the many young people in our community who have a parent who is not a Jew or who are in a relationship with a person who is not a Jew. Our goal should be to connect all who are interested in Jewish life, and to connect them all in our community. We have a long way to go to reach that level of inclusivity.

Synagogues, Interfaith Families and Policies – Oh My!


Last month, I blogged about Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue outside of Philadelphia, that updated its constitution to be more explicitly welcoming of interfaith families.

Yesterday, the Jewish Exponent ran an article that looked at the more personal side of the decision. They interviewed Kari Kohn, a Presbyterian, who, with her husband, Joshua, is raising two Jewish kids.

When Kari and Joshua Kohn moved to Bryn Mawr a year ago, they enrolled their two sons, ages 3 and 5, in pre-school at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. But the interfaith couple had no intention of joining the congregation unless both husband and wife could be counted as members.

“I am looking to be part of a community,” Kari Kohn said. “I’m the one that drives the kids to pre-school, goes to Tot Shabbat with the kids, cooks the Shabbat meals. I’m committed to raising my kids Jewish,” she said, adding that she does not want to feel like an outsider.
Rabbi Elliot Strom

It’s families like the Kohns that Beth Hillel had in mind when it passed a constitutional amendment in June extending full membership to a family, even if only one of the adults is Jewish. Prior to the decision — the culmination of nearly two years of discussion — only the Jewish adult was considered a congregant.

The decision is not unprecedented for a Conservative shul, either nationally or locally. But it does represent a significant step for a prominent Main Line synagogue and signals a new commitment to attracting interfaith families.

But the article doesn’t stop there. It also looks a the personal impact decisions like these may have on a congregation’s clergy.

It mentions two Reform congregations:

Rabbi Eliot Strom of Shir Ami Bucks County Jewish Congregation, a Reform temple in Newtown, reversed a position he’s held for 35 years and will now officiate at interfaith weddings.

….He said he reconsidered his views because he’s seen many examples of non-Jews doing an effective job of raising their children as Jews — too many instances to be dismissed.

“My goal is to make more Jewish families, not to put a road block in front of them,” said Strom. “The reaction has been uniformly positive. The only issue that I have to deal with is some have said, ‘That’s great. I wish you had that position eight years ago or 12 years ago.'”

Other Reform rabbis are sticking to their positions. Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen disputed the notion that refusing to officiate at interfaith ceremonies makes his synagogue less welcoming. “It is not whether or not you do the ceremony, it’s how you relate to them, the message that you give and how you explain the reason you don’t officiate,” he said, adding that he’ll allow a justice of the peace to officiate at a ceremony at his congregation and will even attend.

He said he designs ceremonies that revolve around Jewish vows and asking a non-Jew to make such vows essentially asks them to be dishonest on their wedding day, he said.

And “a Traditional shul considered to the right of the Conservative movement but not Orthodox”:

“We have such families and we don’t want to see them as something that fell into the cracks of communal life; we want them to feel welcome,” said Rabbi Jean Claude Klein of Shaare Shamayim.

So here are my questions: Does your synagogue include non-Jewish spouses as members? Does your clergy officiate at interfaith marriages? Do you agree with Rabbi Marx’s position? With Rabbi Strom’s reasons?

On a related note, Karen Kushner, our Chief Education Officer, is collecting examples of synagogue policies for non-Jewish partners and family members. Are you counted as a member? Can you take on a leadership position? Are you given ritual honors? []Let her know![/email] Please include the name of your synagogue and city in your response. Thanks!

New Feature for Communities


Coming soon to your community: a new blog!

This space will contain posts written by, for and/or about your community, city and region.

It will feature posts written just for you, as well as relevant posts written for our Network Blog, Wedding Blog or Parenting Blog.

Intemarriage: The Impact of Birthright Israel


A “new” study, Intermarriage: The Impact and Lessons of Taglit-Birthright Israel, is being publicized on the impact of Birthright Israel on intermarriage. I put “new” in quotations because the study was prepared in November 2010. It apparently was published online by Contemporary Jewry then (I didn’t see it at the time), but the print version of the November 2010 journal is just being delivered, so the study is now getting some mention.

I’ve blogged before previous studies about Birthright Israel and intermarriage and the significance of Jewish wedding ceremonies.  The new study is important for focusing on intermarriage and collecting observations that have previously been made. The main conclusions of the new study reiterate that participation in Birthright Israel is associated with significantly greater probability of non-Orthodox trip participants being married to a Jew, and with increased importance placed upon raising Jewish children.

The study notes positive impacts of the trip on people involved in intermarriage: trip participants who were intermarried were nearly three times as likely as non-participants who were intermarried to think raising children as Jews was “very important,” and trip participants who themselves had intermarried parents, “rather than being lost to Jewish life,… appear to be particularly susceptible to informal Jewish education…”

For me this report is most interesting for its description of the “inreach” and “outreach” advocates and this conclusion:

The study casts doubt on the central claim of advocates of inreach; specifically, that there is little that can be done to convince intermarried couples to choose to raise their children as Jews. [Birthright Israel’s] strong impact on the importance intermarried participants attach to raising their children as Jews should encourage advocates of inreach to reconsider the possibility of engaging those who choose a mixed marriage. In parallel, the study also casts doubt on a central claim of outreach advocates. The present findings provide strong evidence that the rate of intermarriage is not fixed and unchangeable. Rather, the likelihood of intermarriage is contingent upon Jewish education and background, including even—or especially—educational interventions that occur after children leave their parents’ homes. Perhaps most importantly, the study suggests that there is no need to decide between inreach and outreach. The educational interventions that reduce the likelihood of intermarriage—including but not limited to [Birthright Israel]—also increase the likelihood that intermarried Jews will view raising Jewish children as very important.

As an outreach advocate, I have to say that I don’t take the position that the rate of intermarriage is fixed and unchangeable, and I am all in favor of educational interventions that result in part in more in-marriage. As I said in my previous blog post, “Birthright Israel may very well be the most successful Jewish continuity program ever. It is very positive news that trip participation is associated with Jews marrying other Jews.”

But I do take the position that there is going to continue to be a significant amount of intermarriage in the non-Orthodox Jewish community, regardless of intervention efforts. Again as I said with respect to the earlier study, “of trip participants who were married, 28% were intermarried…. [A]lthough trip participants are more likely to view marrying a Jew as very important, they are not significantly more likely to date other Jews. Significant numbers of young Jews are going to continue to intermarry, Birthright Israel trip or not.”

The choice between inreach and outreach as described by Leonard Saxe and the co-authors of this study is in my view a distraction from another more serious issue. There is extremely little programming available that is explicitly targeted at engaging people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life and community. This study supports educational interventions before intermarriage occurs, and it talks about comparative and cumulative effects of interventions like day school and Jewish camp as well as Birthright Israel, but it does not acknowledge that programming aimed at interfaith couples and families could have a similar positive cumulative impact. Sadly, it seems that the only interventions that are palatable to many in the community are those that can be shown to reduce intermarriage, with the fact that they also lead to more Jewish engagement by those who intermarry anyway as an tolerated by-product.

The last point in the report is that:

The present research cannot shed light on a key issue that will continue to divide the inreach and outreach advocates; specifically, whether rabbis and Jewish educators should advocate for endogamy. In the case of [Birthright Israel], the program’s effects appear to be due to more general features of the program, such as its impact on participants’ overall Jewish identities and/or social networks. Direct promotion of inmarriage is not part of [Birthright Israel’s] curriculum. Although some [Birthright Israel] educators may encourage endogamy, the program’s effects seem too large to be the result of such ad hoc efforts. Accordingly, the question of whether rabbis and educators should advocate for endogamy remains unanswered.

I have argued this point extensively before, most recently in my presentation at the Jewish Federation of North America’s last General Assembly. Advocating for endogamy creates too much of a risk of alienating the substantial numbers of people who do intermarry. I see this question as related to another issue that is implicated but not addressed in the new study, something I mentioned in my previous blog posts:

It would be a shame if … Birthright Israel [was viewed] as a “cure” or “antidote” to intermarriage or the “solution” to the “intermarriage problem.” Senior representatives of two of Birthright Israel’s leading funders have assured me that that is exactly not the message they want to see conveyed. They want to attract the children of intermarried parents to Birthright Israel trips. They understand that marketing Birthright Israel as a preventative to intermarriage risks pushing those young people away — who wants to go on a trip that will prevent them from doing what their parents did? Finally, they understand, I believe, that the most important impact of the Birthright Israel experience is the motivation to engage in Jewish life and have Jewish children – whether the marriage is “in” or “inter.”

Growing Up With Two Religions


Tablet has a very interesting article with three short videos of teens who grew up with two religions and were involved with The Interfaith Community.  In just three videos a wide range of issues are raised: the impact of having grandparents who are Holocaust survivors; how in some families the subject of religion is “tense” and “controversial,” while in others parents are on the same page and supportive of their young adult children’s choices; the persistence of young adults encountering Jews who tell them they are or are not Jewish based solely on whether their mother is Jewish. Many in the Jewish community are not comfortable with organizations like The Interfaith Community that teach children about both religions; but one of the young adults explains that her family does not mix or homogenize the religions and that she thinks she has a better religious education than friends raised in one religion, while another, who chose to have a Bar Mitzvah, says the program did him a great service and helped him to become who he is. These videos are provocative and worth watching.

The Bachelorette is Open to Raising Children Jewish


Reality TV World has an interview with Ashley and J.P. in which they address the interfaith issue. As happens with so many other couples, Ashley expresses being open to raising their future children Jewish – “whatever makes him happy makes me happy.” And J.P. says his family would be accepting of whoever he brought home.

Q: Ashley, are you excited to learn about the Jewish faith and culture and have you guys talked about your different religions at all and how that might affect your future and potentially raising your kids?

Ashley Hebert: At first, I was nervous that his family wouldn’t be accepting of me, but obviously, that’s not the case. I mean, we talked about it. The truth is, three of my closest friends are Jewish, so I know a lot about it.

I know a lot about the religion and the culture. I think that I’m open to whatever J.P. wants to do. If he wants to raise our kids Jewish, then yeah, whatever you want. I’m very open and I’m not really set in anything, so whatever makes him happy makes me happy.

J.P. Rosenbaum: Religion was never really a factor for me at all. I’m going to love who I’m going to love and I can’t control it. And I know my family’s going to love whoever I love, so it was never an issue and we talk about splitting holidays and Christmases and Passovers with my family and it was never a stumbling block at all.

Q: So, J.P., you were never concerned your family would love Ashley but wish she was Jewish?

J.P. Rosenbaum: Never. Never, ever, ever. My parents – my family is not like that at all. They’re accepting of whomever I would bring home. So, I wasn’t worried about that.