The Ever-Renewing People

Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, and Jason Edelstein published a very important essay today in Mosaic. The title is The Ever-Renewing People and the sub-heading aptly summarizes the essay: “Jewish life in America is actually flourishing, thanks in part to the energy of children of intermarriage.” It’s a response to another hand-wringing condemnation of intermarriage from Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen published a few weeks ago

In a nutshell, where Wertheimer and Cohen cite a decades-ago sociologist who when asked what the grandchildren of intermarried Jews should be called responded “Christian,” Edelsberg and Edelstein dismiss that notion as neither apt nor helpful. They note that thousands of young Jews – up to half of whom would be dismissed by Wertheimer and Cohen as “Christian” – attend Jewish summer camps, Jewish teen programs, Hillel and Moishe House. They put Wertheimer and Cohen’s pessimism in its place:

In the end, Wertheimer and Cohen’s depiction of [American Jewish] life as in need of being pulled back “from the brink” is another caricature of Jews as (in the phrase of the late Simon Rawidowicz) an “ever-dying people.” This belies our extraordinary history as a people and an ever-renewing faith tradition that, time and again, have demonstrated an ability to evolve and adapt, thereby avoiding the cliff that Wertheimer and Cohen have artificially constructed.

Every piece of research that has asked people in interfaith relationships why they are or are not engaged Jewishly cites numerous instances of interfaith couples feeling judged, or they or their children evaluated as “less Jewish.” Interfaith families still experience or perceive negative attitudes about their marriage choices from Jews and Jewish leaders – attitudes that are fueled by essays like Wertheimer and Cohen’s. That’s why the optimistic view of the future, on the part of one of the Jewish community’s most important philanthropists, is so important. That view supports increased efforts to engage even more interfaith families and children of interfaith families in Jewish life and community – to insure, in Edelsberg and Edelstein’s words, that diverse Jews “will continue to invigorate contemporary Judaism and invent new ways to experience American Jewish life.”

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The Temple Where I “Grew Up”

The other day I saw a rabbi I know post a YouTube link to one of my favorite versions of the prayer, Hashkiveinu. Hashkiveinu is one word in English but means, “Grant that we may lie down” in Hebrew. In Hebrew, prefixes and suffixes are attached to the word. It is a petitionary prayer to be able to lie down in peace at night and to return to renewed life the following day.

Rabbi Rothman

Rabbi Murray I. Rothman

The link on Facebook to the video caught my eye for two reasons: As I said, I love this musical rendition of this prayer. Also, this rabbi serves the congregation where I grew up, Temple Shalom of Newton, MA.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? For me, I had heard stories from my dad about how his parents were among the earliest members. My dad had his Bar Mitzvah at this synagogue. I was named as an infant there. The senior rabbi at the time, Murray I. Rothman, of blessed memory, got my family through a horrendous time when my mother was struck by a car crossing the street in front of our house. My little brother was 1, my middle brother was 3 and I was a kindergartner. My mother could not get up the stairs of our house for almost a year. She was bedridden on a couch in our den. My father somehow managed the three of us. Neighbors and family came to the rescue. And Rabbi Rothman came to that den every Friday afternoon with a challah and a Torah commentary and studied a little Torah with my mom. This kept her going spiritually and emotionally.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? I knew the halls of that place. I knew the smells, the classrooms, the chapel, the sanctuary, the bathrooms, the youth lounge, the social hall—I knew the building. My confirmation class photograph is on the wall there. In fact, I sat in the Rabbi’s study on more than one occasion philosophizing about God and Judaism (true, I was into this stuff, even as a kid). I felt at home there. I slept there in a sleeping bag on the floor as a teenager at a “shul-in.” I remember the Temple Shalom sukkah in detail even though the last time I helped decorate one was at least 20 years ago. I can still feel the pride I felt praying with my family in the sanctuary on the High Holidays, wearing my new dress. I can see my brothers as I write this, quietly folding the flyers and tickets into origami to keep occupied during the services.

Temple Shalom of Newton

Some say bricks and mortar don’t matter. Buildings are passé. We’ve got coffee houses now. Millennials don’t want to walk into synagogues. Too many barriers. A building fund is too onerous for members to carry. What’s important are the people. The community. This is also true. But, I loved that building and it went through changes and renovations and has a life of its own. I think one reason I felt so connected to the building was that I could walk there from my house. That is how we got to and from Hebrew School. It is rare today for kids to walk places by themselves (at least not as young as we used to). I loved that independence, and going to a place I felt was totally safe and mine.

What does it mean to grow up at a synagogue? It means you know the people. We knew the people who worked in the office, the maintenance crew, the teachers, the educators and the rabbis. These were the people who lived in the temple as far as I was concerned. They were the familiar faces who knew us by name. They were welcoming and warm. They kept the temple going. And, my friends were there. We came together from multiple public schools. We grew up there together. We came to one another’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah services. We had our parties in the synagogue social hall. My parents knew the other parents and the kids.

I learned to read Hebrew there. I may not have known how to translate each word into English but I learned to read the Hebrew prayers in Hebrew fluently by about fifth grade. I kept the old blue Gates of Prayer Book—the Reform Movement’s prayer book—on my nightstand growing up, which I received from Temple Shalom. A nameplate was placed in it for me at my Bat Mitzvah. I read the prayers to myself at night and they were a source of comfort.

My parents have now moved to Philadelphia to be near my little brother’s family. We have no ties to this building anymore. We don’t know many people who still go there. Yet, all these years later, when I see a Facebook post from Temple Shalom, it catches my eye. It makes me smile to see the new life that is there now. It is a part of me.

I marry lots of people who “grew up at an area congregation” but they left after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Maybe they have great and deep memories of being there. Maybe they barely remember their time there.

The only way one feels a sense of growing up in a synagogue is if you are there a lot and get really involved. I am thankful this was the case for me and my family growing up. It’s never too late to go back. It’s never too late to try a new congregation. Interfaith families are welcome at congregations, often with wide open arms.

Look through our listings for congregations that explicitly welcome interfaith couples and families, and check out this list of organizations hosting InterfaithFamily Shabbat events this month!

Birthright Israel and Intermarriage

[This piece, by Edmund Case and Jodi Bromberg, was published in eJewishPhilathropy on September 11, 2014.]

Taglit-Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed and implemented to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews. A just-released study confirms many positive impacts of Birthright Israel on marriage and family choices.

At InterfaithFamily we greatly appreciate that participation in Birthright Israel is open to young adult Jews whose parents are intermarried; the new study says that 17% of participants from 2001 to 2006 have one Jewish parent and that recent trip cohorts include a larger proportion of those individuals. We have published several articles by trip participants about their very positive trip experiences and hope they have had some effect in alleviating any concerns children of intermarried parents might have about whether they will be truly welcomed. Our staff have participated in training Birthright Israel tour operators to be sensitive to participants whose parents are intermarried and have advised Birthright Israel staff on sensitive questions to determine trip eligibility. We seek to promote Birthright Israel Next activities where we have local staff in our InterfaithFamily/Your Communities – currently Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston, and coming in the fall of 2014 in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

We support Birthright Israel because it strengthens Jewish engagement among young Jews and in particular young Jews whose parents are intermarried. A 2009 evaluation study found that 52% of trip participants who were intermarried viewed raising children as Jews as very important, almost twice as many as 27% of non-participants. The new study again reports higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants having that view. The new study reports that the group of intermarried trip participants who have children at this time is too small to assess the impact of Birthright Israel on actual child raising; the authors do say it is possible that an impact will surface in the future, and that is what we fully expect to see. Higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants also have a special meal on Shabbat, attend religious services, and are otherwise engaged Jewishly.

The new study focuses on marriage choices and highlights that trip participants are more likely (72%) to marry other Jews than non-participants (55%). It finds that the impact of participation on marriage choices of participants whose parents are intermarried is “particularly striking;” for them, the likelihood of in-marriage is 55%, compared to 22% of non-participants whose parents are intermarried.

At InterfaithFamily we think it is wonderful when a young adult Jew falls in love and partners with or marries another Jew. That more participants on Birthright Israel trips marry Jews, and more participants whose parents are intermarried marry Jews, are very positive results. We also think Jewish communities need to genuinely welcome all newly-formed families, whether both partners are Jewish or not. Offering a sincere “mazel tov” is the first of many needed steps that can contribute to interfaith couples deciding to engage in Jewish life and community.

We don’t doubt the study’s conclusion that Birthright Israel has “the potential to alter broad demographic patterns of the American Jewish community” and change trends of in-marriage, intermarriage and raising Jewish children. We also don’t doubt that significant numbers and percentages of young adult Jews – whether they have the great good fortune to participate on a Birthright Israel trip or not – will continue to intermarry. In the new study, of all trip participants who are married, 28% are intermarried. Of participants who are married whose parents are intermarried, 45% are intermarried. The study’s authors note that some evidence suggests that the magnitude of the marriage choice effects may moderate over time – the likelihood of in-marriage decreases for participants as their age at marriage increases, and participants tend to marry later.

Further, large numbers of young adult Jews have not participated and sadly will not participate on a Birthright Israel trip. A large number of young adult Jews have already aged out of eligibility. It would be truly wonderful if resources could be raised and more young Jews attracted to participate on Birthright Israel trips, so that the annual number of participants would represent more than the current one-third of the eligible age cohort. Even if half or two thirds of those eligible could participate, a significant percentage still would not. At the study’s current rates, close to half of non-participants will intermarry.

The study’s authors note that discussion of the Pew Report “has, for the most part, ignored the contribution of improved and expanded Jewish education programs … to both the current contours of American Jewry and to its future trajectory.” The authors are referring in particular to Israel education programs, but they clearly believe that Jewish education programs work. At InterfaithFamily we believe it is imperative to offer Jewish education programs designed for and marketed explicitly to interfaith families – whether they participated in a Birthright Israel trip or not – like those offered as part of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative. The study includes numerous quotes from its survey respondents about their memorable Jewish experiences including Shabbat and holidays; our Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family class elicits multiple examples of the same kinds of comments. The study also notes that intermarried survey participants who had a sole Jewish officiant at their wedding were far more likely to be raising their children Jewish than those who had another type of officiation at their weddings; that’s why our personalized officiation referral service is so important.

Again, Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews, and we wish it great continued success, especially in attracting and strengthening Jewish engagement among young Jews with intermarried parents. Services and programs designed explicitly for interfaith families are badly needed too, and can work together with and in mutual support of Israel engagement programs, all with a goal of greater engagement in Jewish life and community.

Join in Our New Mentoring Program

Two couples having a discussion

Over the three years since InterfaithFamily/Chicago began, many brides and grooms have asked me to connect them with another couple in a similar religious situation to see how they have successfully navigated their relationship. Many times a Catholic woman marrying a Jewish man has wanted to speak to someone else who can understand how her mother and grandmother feel about the faith, upbringing and baptism, specifically, of a theoretical baby one day.

No matter what wisdom I can share from how other couples have worked out interfaith issues, there is nothing like speaking one-on-one with someone who has actually been there. We have done our best to connect couples over the years and have heard back about how helpful those matches have been.

Because we have seen what an organic need this is, we are thrilled that we received a JUF Breakthrough Fund grant to launch a comprehensive and supported new, innovative Mentoring Program for interfaith couples and families.

We are just beginning the program. If you are an interfaith couple seriously dating, engaged or married or an interfaith family with young children who would like to be paired with another couple or family who shares a similar religious story and lives near you, we would be so happy to make a match for you.

The mentors will be available to you through email, phone and in-person to talk through how they handle holidays and extended family, how they made religious decisions, how their kids have felt about their family’s decisions and all the other questions that can come up for interfaith families. The mentors will also invite their mentees to their home between December and May. You may be able to get together in-person (depending on your schedules) for certain holidays or at least to see how the other couple observes a Sabbath and brings peace, time for reflection and revitalization to their lives.

We will stay in touch with everybody and make sure the matches have been successful and that participants are benefitting from their new relationships. This is really a shehecheyanu moment for us at InterfaithFamily (the prayer of joy and gratitude that is said upon doing something for the first time). In the middle of this hard-to-pronounce Hebrew word is the word “chai” (life). This is a prayer about celebrating the joys of life. We have wanted to pair couples with one another in an organized program for some time and we are so proud and happy that the time has come.

InterfaithFamily/Chicago just offered a book talk on David Wolpe’s book Teaching Your Children about God. In the book, Wolpe makes a couple of observations. He writes that we often sense God or something bigger than ourselves in beginnings. This is why when something new starts, we sometimes feel an urge to mark that with prayer or a ritual. He also explains that it is through God’s presence that we can truly see each other. I pray that as we start this new program that it draws people closer to one another and to sacred purpose, hope and inspiration.

If you would like to be paired with a mentor couple or you would like to serve as a mentor couple, please email Judy Jury at judyj@interfaithfamily.com. Judy is the Jewish educator who will be directing this new program. The mentors will participate in a training program on Sunday, November 9 at the Weinger Northbrook JCC to consciously articulate and think about their religious journeys and how they can best support a couple just starting out. At that meeting, the mentors will receive the contact information for who they will be working with. Mentees can be expected to be contacted by their mentors soon after that date.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Jewish Genetic Diseases: Interfaith Doesn’t Equal Immunity

The Victor CenterThanks to various Jewish ad campaigns and informational events, I know the big, scary Jewish genetics statistic: One in four Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier for at least one of the 19 preventable genetic diseases. But when Dr. Jodi Hoffman of Tufts Medical Center informed me that, “a big misconception is that interfaith couples are not at risk for having children affected with Jewish genetic diseases and therefore do not need to get screened before starting a family,” it was news to me. Unlike my colleague Wendy Armon who wrote an informative article on the subject last year, I had no idea, nor did many of my friends.

Who knew interfaith and interracial couples are not exempt from the need to test for Jewish genetic diseases? (Besides Wendy and Dr. Hoffman, that is.)

Particularly in light of this pervasive ignorance, renowned geneticist and pediatrician Dr. Hoffman has dedicated years to doing outreach to Jewish and interfaith families, working to dispel misconceptions like the one I had. Nationally recognized for her expertise in screening for Jewish genetic diseases, she is currently the Director of the Victor Outreach and Screening Program for Ashkenazi Jews at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. One of U.S. News & World Report’s “Top Doctors” in 2012, Dr. Hoffman is determined to reach as many people as she possibly can.

Shortly after I connected with Dr. Hoffman, Elizabeth Freid Vocke, one of our regular contributors on InterfaithFamily, wrote about the scare her interfaith family endured prior to the birth of their daughter Mirabelle. I asked Dr. Hoffman for her thoughts on Vocke’s article.

In light of common misinformation about proper genetic testing, is the article accurate? Is there anything you believe is particularly important to highlight?

Yes, it is definitely relevant. I think the key points to emphasize are:

  1. Any of the Jewish genetic diseases can be carried by someone of non-Eastern European background.
  2. The most accurate screening for Tay-Sachs includes DNA and enzyme (blood testing—which is not provided by the JScreen test).
  3. If the partner of Ashkenazi Jewish background screens positive, the follow-up screening needs to be based on the ethnic background of the other partner–not the Ashkenazi Jewish screening panel.
  4. Screening is best done prior to pregnancy to allow for the most reproductive options.

What recommendations would you give to interfaith couples?

Get screened and update your screening. A simple blood test will tell you if you are a carrier. There are 3 ways to get screened:  1) Contact your physician or OB/GYN. 2) Schedule an appointment at the Victor Outreach and Screening Program Clinic at Tufts Medical Center. Call (617) 636-7721 to make an appointment. 3) Attend a Victor Center community screening. You can find an upcoming screening and more information at www.victorcenters.org/screening.

Why Phish is Like Judaism for Newbies

This guest blog post is by my husband, Andrew Garnett-Cook

Andrew at Phish

Andrew at a Phish show

Recently, I went to see Phish, one of my favorite bands.  Over the course of 20 years, I’ve been to many of their shows. I was first introduced to Phish while in college and, despite a long period where I virtually stopped listening to them, I still enjoy their music and the community that surrounded them.

One thing that one must understand about Phish is that there is a tribal quality to its fans and their love for, and knowledge of, Phish music. Within the Phish world, there are stories, legends, unspoken understandings and a profound sense of shared experience borne of years of having spent time following the band from place to place during their sometimes extensive tours.

Even more interesting is the relationship of the band to the music.  Phish fans spend a great deal of time examining and scrutinizing Phish’s live music, dissecting jams and comparing them with some of the best versions of particular songs ever done live.  Certain live versions of their songs are considered classics among the fans and are spoken of with reverence that might seem excessive to anyone not familiar with the world of Phish.

 

However, once you step even an inch outside the tribal world of Phish and its community of fans, songs that are instantly recognizable classics are virtual unknowns. How many of you have ever heard of “You Enjoy Myself”? Or “Down with Disease”? Or “Ghost”? These are to Phish fans what “Hey Jude” and “Stairway to Heaven” are to the larger world of fans of rock music.

In short, fans of Phish have a shared community united around a shared past, common experience, rituals and intimate knowledge of the band and its music, though all of these things are foreign to the outside world.

For me, this is not unlike Judaism. As someone who is not Jewish, but is married to a Jew, entering the Jewish world meant being exposed to a community who also have a shared past, common experiences, rituals and intimate knowledge of the language, practices and songs associated with religious gatherings. Like the person who is not a fan of Phish, these things would be unfamiliar to someone who is not Jewish and has never been exposed to that world.

The thing to remember is that both the world of Phish and the Jewish community are, in my experience, inviting and supportive communities. A newbie at a Phish concert would be welcomed warmly and some dedicated Phishhead would be all too happy to walk them through the history of each song. Likewise, for me, introduction to the Jewish world has been at the heart of a supportive community at our synagogue, led by a rabbi who has embraced interfaith couples and made them feel welcome in the community. Because of this, I have had time to relax, become familiar with Judaism and feel like the Jewish community is one to which I can contribute.

My advice to other interfaith couples? Even if something seems unfamiliar at first or inaccessible to you, do not conclude it must be so. Like entry into the world of Phish, entering into the world of Judaism and becoming comfortable in that world takes time, commitment and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable for a while. But, a good community will welcome you in and give you the time and space to find your way.

Love, Religion and Cocktails!

Love, religion and cocktails event

Rabbi Robyn Frisch, Director of IFF/Philadelphia (left) with a participant at Love, Religion & Cocktails

A few weeks ago, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia hosted our first gathering for young adults from interfaith homes and those who are in interfaith relationships: Love, Religion & Cockatils. We were fortunate enough to work with The Jewish Collaborative, a local organization that works with people in their 20s and 30s. In addition, our programming committee was terrific in coming up with the right type of program and the appropriate language for the marketing materials. Lots of organizations have mixers or programs, but this event was a little bit of both. It was an amazing night!

Drinks and appetizers: Everyone was given two drink tickets and there was a table with appetizers so that everyone could snack and mingle. We wanted everyone to have a chance to engage in casual conversation before we broke up into two groups. We served the “Love & Religion” as our signature cocktail. We’re pretty sure our participants enjoyed our special concoction.

A unique format: We wanted people to talk casually about their experiences and to connect with one another. The programming committee thought that the best way to achieve this would be to ask lighthearted questions such as, “What is your favorite holiday movie and why?” We hoped participants would explain their points of view as to why they liked certain movies, thus sparking conversation about issues such as how childhood memories inform our identity. We know that for many people, there is a lot of passion about their religion that has to do with memories. We asked other fun questions such as “If you described your family as a food, what would it be?” We heard, “a pizza bagel,” “a potato latke.” The answers were fun and touched upon the backgrounds of each person. One person talked about feelings associated with a Christmas tree. Another person talked about family meals and holidays.

Love religion & cockatils

During our conversations, we heard the most fascinating stories. One woman who grew up in America went to Israel and is now engaged to a Muslim from Sudan. Another woman told us about growing up in a Jewish/Puerto Rican household. One of the couples talked about how the rabbi at their wedding was so wonderful and welcoming that the partner who did not grow up Jewish is now considering converting.

A measure of success: we handed out short evaluations and all data indicated that everyone seemed quite happy with the program. The real measure of success in my mind was that people stayed for an hour after the event ended to talk to one another and our staff. Obviously, there is a real need for a forum for folks to connect and share their stories. I’m proud that IFF/Philadelphia offered that space for them and I’m pleased to be part of an organization that offers a safe space for people to share and communicate online and in person.

Would you like to attend Love, Religion and Cocktails in the future in Philadelphia or elsewhere? Share your comments and ideas below.

“Belonging” as a Parent with a Jewish Son

Stacie and family

Stacie, her husband Andrew and Sammy, the day of the aliyah

This past weekend, our 5-month-old son was formally welcomed into our synagogue community when our family was honored with an aliyah (being called to the honor of Torah). Our rabbi offered blessings, everyone sang “Siman tov u’mazel tov” and we talked about how Sammy got his name. He is named in honor of both of his grandfathers and we described the qualities we hope he will inherit from each: creativity, curiosity, intellect, humor and a big heart.

It was wonderful for us to celebrate the birth of our son together with our synagogue community and receive their congratulations. Every new parent needs all the support they can get!

But it also made me think about a comment my husband, who is not Jewish, made to me a few months ago. He said that now that he is raising a Jewish son, he feels like he is connected to and belongs to the Jewish people in a stronger way.

This comment surprised me a little because I thought he already felt like he belonged. After all, we’ve been celebrating Jewish holidays together since we started dating, we regularly attend neighborhood Shabbat dinner potlucks, and say Hamotzi (the blessing over bread) before dinner each night. Even when I was pregnant and not fasting, my husband decided to keep the fast during Yom Kippur anyway!

But then I thought about it. Being married to a Jewish woman is one thing. Committing yourself to raising a Jewish child is another. It is an awesome responsibility, and I hope, an opportunity. How wonderful that fulfilling that role has brought my husband closer to Judaism!

I hope that as we move through our life together and reach various Jewish milestones of Sammy’s—starting Hebrew school, having a Bar Mitzvah, being confirmed—that this sense of belonging is reinforced by our synagogue community and continues to grow. There are opportunities to invite both of us in as parents—Jewish and not Jewish—to learn along with Sammy and share in the lessons from Hebrew school; to think about the deeper meaning of becoming a Bar Mitzvah and taking on the responsibilities of a Jewish adult; and to engage with the synagogue community.

From our experience so far in our synagogue, I have faith that there will be a place for both of us as Sammy’s parents. Even during the aliyah, there was an alternate blessing for my husband to recite that acknowledges his different and special relationship to Torah while I recited the traditional blessings. I hope that continues to be the case for us, and I hope that all interfaith families have the opportunity to feel like they “belong” to the Jewish people.

What Makes Judaism Distinct

InterfaithFamily/Chicago helps facilitate a class for grandparents about passing on their values to their grandchildren. The conversation can be especially nuanced and sensitive for those grandparents who have grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes in which the parents struggle with “what to do about religion and traditions.”

Grandparents often say that they want their grandchildren to be kind, happy, giving, empathetic people. We then discuss whether these traits are “Jewish.” Does Judaism have a monopoly on kindness? Certainly not. But, Judaism does have our own vocabulary, narratives and texts which teach us about this value. Does it “matter” if our grandchildren or children know the word “chesed” (kindness) for instance, or the phrase “gimilut chasadim” (acts of loving kindness)? Does it make a difference if they learn about references in the Talmud to acts of kindness being even greater than giving tzedakah (money to make things “right”—literally righteousness) because one can perform kindness to the living or the dead (through the honor of burial) as well as other reasons? I actually do think it adds a layer of richness, connectedness, roots, identity and pride to connect universal values with our distinct and special cultural references to it.

Bar MitzvahSo what is distinct about Judaism? Rabbis are often worried about sustaining the unique, set-aside, separate and “special” ways of Judaism. This is what leads to continuity. Is it through being insular, ethnic and concerned with ritual barriers and religious barriers that keeps the Jewish civilization alive and thriving? What would happen if someone not Jewish participated in rituals intended for Jews? Could we lose the idea that there is a distinctiveness of our people and tradition? It is one thing to have an open, loving, accepting community, but when it comes to ritual participation should there be boundaries (as in boundaries of who can take communion, for instance, in Catholicism)?

When it comes to non-Orthodox Judaism—where we look to Jewish law and traditions as guidelines—to perhaps inspire or suggest a way of behavior, but where Jewish law can be molded, updated and changed, then our distinctiveness is not based on rituals and laws, but something else.

What makes progressive Judaism distinct is our approach to Judaism. We approach Judaism with a modern, feminist, historical, rational, spiritual and activist lens (among others).  What makes this Jewish expression distinct is our ability to allow people who did not grow up with Judaism experience the culture fully (precisely because we are not wholly concerned with the letter of the law).

We are distinct from Christianity and other religions. We are distinct from other forms of Jewish expression. There are both religious and secular humanistic ways to live this form of Judaism. Is this just Judaism-light or watered down Judaism? What’s authentic about this kind of Judaism? Different people will answer this question differently. Nobody should be made to defend his or her identity and religious or cultural ties. Does an open, non-legalistic Judaism perpetuate Judaism? If grandchildren don’t know the phrase “gimilut chasadim” but only that being kind is of utter importance to the matriarchs and patriarchs of their family, will Judaism continue? I do not believe that the only way for Judaism to survive is if it is a Judaism concerned with legal boundaries.

Maybe when we stop stressing about what a parent who isn’t Jewish can say during a child’s bar or bat mitzvah or whether there is an alternative candle lighting blessing for someone not Jewish, we will see that in liberal Judaism our liturgy is metaphor and that the people in the pews may not be concerned only with Jewish law and that many ignore the law when it seems sexist, archaic, irrelevant or un-inspiring.

Sometimes a lack of literacy is to blame for not understanding a tradition and simply writing it off without ever studying it or trying it. However, maybe we can “let it go” when it comes to ritual and legalistic distinctions and feel confident that it is not these boundaries that make progressive Judaism viable and special. It is our approach to Judaism which should be celebrated and highlighted.

RE-READING RUTH: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and her Interfaith Marriage”

A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.

The Book of Ruth“Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, are among the most well known and most powerful words in the Bible. They express Ruth’s commitment to Naomi—and to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. With this declaration, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with the lot of the Jewish people, and she recognized the God of Israel as her God.

Often Ruth is spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course Ruth’s “conversion” wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an Introduction to Judaism class (I can’t imagine that any such classes were offered in Moab!); she didn’t appear before a Beit Din (a rabbinic court); and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikveh (ritual bath). And in fact, throughout the Book of Ruth, even after Ruth makes her declaration of commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel, Ruth is constantly referred to as “the Moabite,” reminding us, the readers, that Ruth was still seen as an “outsider.”

Even if we are to accept that Ruth converted to Judaism (at a time long before conversion as we now know it), the timing of Ruth’s “conversion” is noteworthy. Having lost her husband and two sons, Machlon (Ruth’s husband) and Chilion (who was married to another Moabite woman, Orpah), while living in Moab, Naomi was preparing to head back to Israel. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families, and Orpah followed her instructions. Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and when Naomi told her to “return to her people and her gods” as Orpah had done, Ruth responded: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go….”

By the time Ruth made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon, which lasted about ten years, was an interfaith marriage! I can only imagine that Ruth’s great love for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the period of the marriage and beyond Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was—making Ruth feel valued and loved.

So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If ONLY she were Jewish…” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel: that she’s not quite good enough, that she’s second class. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth. While the text may go out of its way to call her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth”: beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her own land and her own people to return to Naomi’s homeland with her after Machlon had died.

Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents—and the Jewish community as a whole—could be as non-judgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of Machlon’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and choose after a period of time to become Jewish. We see this happen all of the time: Someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish. (As a rabbi, I would much prefer that someone wait to convert until they’re sure that it’s right for them, rather than converting to appease a prospective in-law or just make things “easier” when getting married. A conversion just to make someone else happy seems to me to be “empty” and insincere.)

Of course even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are non-judgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner in an interfaith marriage who didn’t grow up Jewish is going to convert. Some people won’t convert because they still practice another religion, and others will decide—for a variety of reasons—that conversion to Judaism isn’t for them. And that’s OK too! Our community needs to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves—just as Naomi showed Ruth respect throughout the time that she was married to Machlon. As Naomi realized throughout the marriage, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she WAS—not for what she WANTED Ruth to be.

At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” who was in an interfaith marriage to Machlon is the great-grandmother of David—not only a great King of Israel, but the progenitor of the Messiah.

Soon it will be Shavuot. It’s customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. It’s quite appropriate to read the story of a woman who demonstrated her loyalty to Judaism on the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. As Shavuot approaches, I will celebrate Ruth, who wasn’t raised Jewish, from our Jewish past. And I will also celebrate all of those people in our Jewish present who weren’t raised Jewish: those who’ve chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community in less formal ways (by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community). All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.