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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
The media buzz about Conservative rabbis and officiation at weddings of interfaith couples has slowed, but there has been important commentary in the past three weeks.
The rabbis of theÂ Jewish Emergent NetworkÂ â certainly among the most progressive younger rabbis in the country âÂ expressed solidarityÂ with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie for raising important issues, expressing âhope that in the months ahead, the focus will shift from internal Jewish politics to the ways in which contemporary Jewish spiritual leadership, as it looks both to the past and the future, will respond to the increasingly fluid boundaries between the categories of Jew and non-Jew.â
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle had an excellent summary of the Conservative officiation debate in anÂ article about varying opinions of local Conservative rabbis. One rabbi said the Rabbinical Assembly should only change its prohibition if there is an adequate halachic basis to do so; one said if the RA changed its stance he still wouldnât officiate. The article reports that there is a petition being circulated to affirm the prohibition and that the RA has a Blue Ribbon Commission examining the boundaries of the prohibition â not overturning it, but defining what it means.
I was disturbed to read Steven Cohen quoted as criticizing theÂ Cohen Centerâs researchÂ showing a strong association between having a rabbi officiate and interfaith couplesâ later joining synagogues and raising their children Jewish. Cohen apparently says the study provides no evidence of impact and just shows that people who seek a rabbi are more Jewishly engaged. I think the Cohen Centerâs interpretation makes much more sense: âInteractions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the coupleâs prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.â
The article reports that Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, who said he would officiate for interfaith couples if the RA changed its prohibition, found a way to participate in a wedding without overtly violating it: while under the chuppah he delivered the âwedding talk,â while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony. He said, âI believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own childrenâŚ. And I have to say, âIâm so sorry I canât perform your wedding.â They never get over it.â He continued, and I think this makes a great deal of sense,
We are not going to have a better chance of a Jewish future if we reject our children. There is no chance then. The more welcoming we are, the better chance we have for a Jewish future. I do believe this is a matter of life and death for our movement. I believe intermarriage is not leading our kids away from Judaism. I believe it is our reaction to intermarriage that is pushing them away.
Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who was expelled by the RA because he started to officiate for interfaith couples, says that the leadership of the Conservative movement isÂ at odds with its members. âThe Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary may adamantly reject the idea that Conservative rabbis should officiate at interfaith marriages; the Conservative constituency overwhelmingly believes they should.â
Intermarriage is one of the clearest manifestations of the consequences of the gap between rabbis and constituents, which I believe is at the core of the crisis in Conservative Judaism today. But the fundamental issue is that while leadership still perceives Conservative Judaism as a halachic movement, its constituents do not. For them, Judaism is not about law. It is a matter of the heart and spirit. It is about intent, feeling, and identity. And when it comes to intermarriage, it is about love. It is not about adherence to technical standards that are arcane and burdensome, that lack transparency, and make life harder and more difficult. Like most non-Orthodox Jews, members of Conservative synagogues are seeking religious communities that enable them to celebrate the milestones of their life with joy and meaning, and which help them shoulder the burdens of a challenging society with greater confidence and purpose.
But where they seek peace, Conservative Judaism offers Halacha. Where they yearn for fulfillment, they are given the message that they are Jewishly inauthentic. Where they crave acceptance, they are judged.
The New Jersey Jewish News had an interestingÂ essay by Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptmann, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a grandchild growing up in an interfaith home. She says that as of now, she wonât officiate for interfaith couples, âbut I wish I could.â (The essay is about what she says is the more important question of how to get the children of intermarriage to grow up Jewish, and about the key role that grandparents can play.)
Finally, there was aÂ great article interviewing Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, who outlined six tips to make both sides feel comfortable while respecting their traditions. She explains she made the difficult decision to co-officiate because âthere have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.â
This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that âarguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.â
Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that âarguing that sticking withÂ in-marriageÂ weakens us is self-fulfilling.Â In-marriageÂ wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis officiating â disapprove of insistence onÂ JewishÂ couples and relationships.â
That is a false equivalency, in my view. There canât be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesnât work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. Itâs the insistence that there is only one right way thatâs the problem.
Rosner says aÂ Conservative rabbiÂ who refers to âthe naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they buildâ is right. How anyone can hold that position after theÂ Cohen Centerâs latest researchÂ showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites anÂ article by Roberta Rosenthal KwallÂ that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to âactivelyâ encourage conversion, and an interesting âdescriptive, not opinionatedâÂ analysis by Emma GreenÂ in the Atlantic.)
TheÂ Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment onÂ eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says âIf the person I walk down the aisle with isnât Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?â and â72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is âŚ about Jewish apathy.â Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer âholds outdated views that intermarriageâŚ divorce
Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journal,Â says:
One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and âturned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.â If she hadnât, âthat could have been the end of Judaism for meâŚ I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.â This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that Iâve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesnât officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:
An outstanding example of a cantor who âgets itâ is Erik Contzius, who says “Letâs Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’”Â He used to not officiate, but âComing to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.â
Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi,Â reportsÂ that he âencountered fierce oppositionâ to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and â adopting a posture of radical hospitality,â but steadfastly believes that âproviding a space that caters to every Jewâs spiritual needs â even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith â is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.â
Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:
Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman”Â (an edited version of a longer piece onÂ Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on
Golin argues that theism is the problem â most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that âWhen thereâs no magical âJewish geneâ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?â But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.
In hisÂ second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinateâs claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leadersâ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew ânot Jewish enough.â I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: âpolicing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of whoâs doing it.â
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Alongside theÂ negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.
Naomi Schaefer Riley has anÂ interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the Bânai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says
If thereâs one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, itâs the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isnât Jewish will turn around a few years later and push them to send their children to the synagogue preschool. In my interviews [for her book on interfaith couples], this practice is commonly labeled âhypocriticalâ by those affected by it.
Riley makes the interesting observation that the Catholic church used to require the non-Catholic spouse to promise to raise children Catholic, but decided it couldnât in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders âhave no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.â Despite that, Riley does think the Bânai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.
In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples â after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding â is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, anÂ excellent article in theÂ Boston GlobeÂ about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing interfaith marriages not as a loss â âItâs not a minus one, itâs a plus one.â
Rubel says Honeymoon Israelâs goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but âto empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.â Sixty percent of the couples who take the trip are interfaith, including the author of the article, who writes that a few months after the trip, her group âhad settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.â This is very important. It shows whatâs possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.
After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children â and thereâsÂ positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28Â percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith familiesÂ and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish â for example, 89 percent of interfaithÂ families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67Â percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaithÂ families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is âexcitingâ to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.
One of the reportâs conclusions is that âthere is room to grow the program among âŚ intermarried familiesâ and that PJ needs to expand efforts to reach more of the less-connected, less-affiliated families. I very much hope that PJ does that. Itâs interesting that PJâs influence is greater within the home; other studies have found that interfaith families are more comfortable engaging in Jewish life at home with their family than in more public, organized settings. The report notes that PJ traditionally has reached families through organized institutions such as synagogues, Federations, or JCCâs; thatâs not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than families that are solely Jewish; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.
The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books â with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying âmore cultural booksâŚ more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazingâ â other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying âWe value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.â Itâs very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith familiesâ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Libraryâs efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.
After young interfaith families often come bânai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post hasÂ a very sweet storyÂ about two familiesâ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah â the fatherâs mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didnât have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs âto confirm their identity.â The fatherâs wife/boyâs mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldnât have been able to do it. The other family included a Jewish mother from the FSU, married to a man named Bernstein who had a Jewish father but was raised Catholic; the father says, âIâm still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. Iâm Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.â The son says, âThe tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.â One more proof of whatâs possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.
That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed inÂ a fascinating episode on interfaith marriageÂ on the BBC radio show “All Things Considered.” The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the U.K., a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50 percent of U.K. Jews are now in interfaith marriages, and that more U.K. Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples â as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas â for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesusâ divinity.
Finally, theÂ new rabbi at Montrealâs Dorshei Emet, reportedly one of the few if not the only Reconstructionist congregations where interfaith weddings are not done, comes with experience officiating for interfaith couples and âmakes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.â And Keren McGinity persuasively presentsÂ the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Thereâs been an explosion of news and comment about intermarriage in the past 10 days. On June 11 I blogged about Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieâs big reveal that he would officiate for interfaith couples who were the modern-day equivalents of the ger toshav, the âresident alienâ who in the past was not Jewish but lived among and interacted with Jews and had some status under Jewish law. Lau-Lavieâs proposal got more coverage, from Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week, as well as a statement from the head of the Conservative rabbisâ association that reiterated their opposition to Conservative rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples.
The Forward publicized Lau-Lavieâs proposal and invited comment to a new âconversationâ about intermarriage I thought the most trenchant comment came from Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, a senior Conservative rabbi who had announced that he would officiate for interfaith couples, and was expelled from the Conservative rabbisâ association. Rabbi Rosenbloom writes that Lau-Lavieâs idea, while creative and imaginative, is fatally flawed, âtoo little, too late.â
âThe person who is not Jewish is not looking to study for six months, make various commitments for future involvement in the Jewish community, and be known (I must say, derogatorily) as a âresident alienââŚ. Mostly, this proposal is about making a rabbi feel comfortable doing something he or she wants to do but is not permitted to do.â Rabbi Rosenbloom says that what couples want from officiants is affirmation:
We should embrace them with love and affirmation, not make demands upon them that they cannot possibly commit to, and act as if we are grudgingly doing them a favor.Â What we need most is faith in the future. We need to believe in Judaism. We need to believe that the wisdom of Jewish teaching, the ethical values that are at the heart of that teaching, and lure of being part of an ancient people that is continually reinventing itself to be relevant and responsive to the changing religious, spiritual, and moral demands of every epoch, are compelling enough that many of these couples will choose to live as part of the Jewish community. We need to put fewer obstacles in their path. We need to welcome them for what they may add to our people as well as what we might add to their lives.
Susan Katz Miller also offered What Do Interfaith Couples Want From Rabbis: she says they want co-officiants, not to be forced to make promises about how they will raise children, and Jewish institutions to educate their children even if they are raising them with both religions in the home.
In the meantime, on June 16 the Forward, the New York Jewish Week and JTA reported that the rabbis at âmegaâ âflagshipâ synagogue Bânai Jeshurun in New York had announced that they too would officiate for interfaith couples who commit to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. Interfaith couples will sign a ritual document but not a ketubah. The rabbis will still hold to the matrilineal definition of Jewishness. As JTA reports, BJ is âlarge and trendsetting, and âhas roots in the Conservative movement, [but] is unaffiliated with any denomination.â
And also in the meantime a brave Orthodox Rabbi, Avram Mlotek, wrote “Time to Rethink Our Resistance to Intermarriage.“ He actually says, âA posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.â And âIn order for the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, itâs time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices. Instead, welcome âthe otherâ into the Jewish family. The rest is commentary.â The liberal Modern Orthodox seminary where Rabbi Mlotek was ordained, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, was quick to reiterate its opposition to intermarriage.
There are two important commentaries on all of the news. Shmuel Rosner, in “The rabbisâ intermarriage debate: How to decide who is right and who is wrong,” says the issue is complicated when demography and continuity and the perspective of Jewish policy are taken into account. Pragmatically, he writes, âthe Jews should know by now that âstoppingâ intermarriage is a hollow quest. It is not going to happenâŚâ but intermarriage is a challenge that may be manageable, and may even be an opportunity, but may reduce the number of Jews and the intensity of Jewishness. Rosner concludes that the only way forward is to âlet this trial and error run its course.â
If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us â and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.
The problem with this incredibly non-activist approach is that arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples relationships.
Andrew Silow-Carroll has a very interesting take on the latest research showing lesser engagement by interfaith families. He says that critics of the researchers say that they âdonât see the people behind the numbers.â
These critics say the major studies and their authors treat the intermarried as a statistical burden rather than living and breathing individuals making sometimes hard, sometimes welcome choices. ThatÂ interfaith couples feel judged by the âtribalisticâ mainstream,Â and that Jewish institutions should accept people as they are, not as they wish them to be. Besides, critics say, the statisticians are working against forces they canât resist and longing for a past that cannot be recaptured.
In response to the Forward invitation to join the new âconversationâ about intermarriage, I adapted the piece I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy, “How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Â Interfaith Families Be?” and the Forward published “We Must Embrace Interfaith Families â with No Strings Attached.” I said that all of the commentary and discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating skirted the difficult issues that have to be addressed if interfaith families are going to engage Jewishly â the need for radically inclusive attitudes and practices, the need to stop privileging in-marriage, the need to welcome people from different faith traditions without limitations.
Silow-Carroll says the intermarriage debate has âescalatedâ and judging by all of the commentary it surely has. Stay tuned to see how it develops next.
Postscript June 21
That was fast! Today the Forward has prominent Conservative rabbi Rabbi Daniel Gordis saying “The Conservative Movement Will Inevitably Cave on Intermarriage.” Rabbi Gordis seems to lament a series of Conservative halachic decisions that in his view gave in to social pressure â allowing people to drive to synagogue on Saturdays, to eat fish in non-kosher restaurants, to sanctioning same-sex marriage (he says he isnât taking a stand on the last issue in this essay). The interesting point he makes, that I hadnât thought of: If Conservative rabbis officiate at weddings for interfaith couples, it would be an untenable position for them to later say âyes, one of our rabbis married you, but no, we donât consider your children Jewish.â In other words, they will have to recognize patrilineal descent; Rabbi Gordis laments, âNot that far off is the day when people whom Conservative Judaism calls Jews will not be able to marry Orthodox Jews or many Israelis.â
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Thereâs been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who weâve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in theÂ Washington Post:Â I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.
Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offeredÂ Itâs Time to Say âYes.âÂ Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation howÂ The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a âYesâ to Interfaith Couples.Â But another young Conservative rabbi wrote aboutÂ five steps to âsave Conservative JudaismâÂ â with no mention of interfaith families.
In June an article in theÂ ForwardÂ about rabbis trying toÂ make the Conservative movement more gay-friendlyÂ mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; âLau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.â
Lau-Lavieâs Lab/Shul hadÂ announced an annual celebrationÂ on June 13 featuring âthe revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americansâ â but the news is out in an piece by theÂ ForwardâsÂ Jane Eisner,Â Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews â And The Jew-ish.Â As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use theÂ ger toshav, resident alien, concept âwithin a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.â He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he wonât co-officiate). He will engage academics to âstudy whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.â He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.
Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is âfascinatedâ by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, toÂ simultaneously commentÂ that while we âneedâ Lau-Lavieâs approach, it wonât succeed unless Jews âunderstand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.â
I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, hasÂ expressed open-nessÂ to the experiment â but cautions that itâs the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.
In the newÂ ForwardÂ piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children arenât raised Jews-by-religion, itâs not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have aÂ new paperÂ released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews donât measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.
That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away. Â Eisner says she wants to âsustain and enrich modern Jewish life;â Cohen says âBeing Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us â to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.â We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands â and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life â with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.
In an otherwise really nice article,Â How My Daughterâs Bat Mitzvah Almost Didnât Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family âsurvived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.â Â Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but theÂ ForwardÂ editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.
In an otherwise fine article titledÂ College doesnât turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says âcollege education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.â In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse â being intermarried â with assimilation. He should know better.
Reza Aslan and Jessica JackleyâsÂ TEDx talkÂ about how they are raising their children withÂ Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.
Iâll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim KeenâsÂ Inside IntermarriageÂ â I was honored to write the Foreword â will be available on August 1 but can beÂ pre-orderedÂ now. The third edition of our friend Anita DiamantâsÂ The New Jewish WeddingÂ â now titledÂ The Jewish Wedding NowÂ â came out this past week.
IÂ applaudedÂ in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movementâs audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of theÂ Audacious Hospitality ToolkitÂ surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?
The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movementâs own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism andÂ InterfaithFamily.
But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
In 2000 I wrote an op-ed,Â Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, forÂ Reform JudaismÂ magazine, and a longerÂ We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish FamiliesÂ for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include â indeed, embrace â not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as âin,â as part of âus,â as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as âout,â âother,â not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person âisâ Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to âdoâ Jewish.
Itâs not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.
One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, âitâs wonderful that your daughter has a partner â but wouldnât you prefer that she were straight?â No, he wouldnât, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and Iâve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said âis she Jewishâ? right in front of my daughterâs husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be âsub-optimal.â
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children arenât âreallyâ Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like âger toshavâ is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they donât want their childrenâs status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more âinâ or âoutâ and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies â and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.
A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the âusâ to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have anÂ aliyahÂ excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.
After theÂ Cohen Centerâs recent researchÂ showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogueâs clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCARâs books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. Thatâs why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionistsâ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?
Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to âdo both.â What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors â when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion â they mostly get ânoâ for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most wonât co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who havenât decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we donât have to recommend or favor raising children as âboth,â providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.
The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive â yes, a truly audacious â hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and donât need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.
As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?
Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgoveâs article in the New York Jewish Week, âMikveh Can Solve Conversion Problemâ and Rabbi Shaul Magidâs article in The Forward âWhy Conversion Lite Wonât Fix The Intermarriage Problem.âÂ Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word âproblem.â
I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isnât the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposedâin fact, I often donât know what the article is going to be called until I see it online or in print. Editors give headlines to articles that they think will attract readers. And so, I presume that it wasnât Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word âproblemâ in the headline of either of their articles about interfaith marriage (though in the first sentence of his article Rabbi Magid stated that intermarriage is âarguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewryâ). But, the editors of the articles did choose to use the word and I find that disturbing.
For too long, the Jewish community has referred to interfaith marriage as a problem. It implies that the people in those marriagesâthe Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different backgroundâare also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, weâve been talking out of both sides of our mouth. On the one hand, we spend our resources (both time and money) trying to figure out how to engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life, and on the other hand, we tell these people that theyâre a problem. So, hereâs a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, letâs stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.
Throughout the four years that Iâve been working for InterfaithFamily, a national organization whose mission is to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life and to advocate for the inclusion of people in interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, Iâve been especially sensitive to the language thatâs used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. Iâm constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who arenât Orthodox. We hear about the âproblemsâ and âchallengesâ of interfaith relationships and we see classes on âthe December Dilemmaâ and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.
Iâm proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesnât just reflect the way we think; it also shapes the way we think. At InterfaithFamily, we speak about the challenges *and* blessings of being in an interfaith relationship and we offer classes on âthe December Dialogueâ or âthe December Discussion.â
We at InterfaithFamily also advocate for framing discussions about interfaith marriage not as how we can solve a problem, but rather as how we can view interfaith marriage as an opportunityâan opportunity not simply to increase our numbers in the Jewish community, but also for the Jewish community to evolve in a rich and meaningful way, with people who did not grow up Jewish bringing new insights and perspectives as they choose to engage in Jewish life.
I ask the editors of the Jewish press and others in the Jewish community to join us in our effort to reconsider the language being used to discuss interfaith marriage. Please, whether you see interfaith marriage as an opportunity or not, stop calling it a problem. At the very least, why not just name it as what it is, and what itâs sure to remain in the future: reality. Once we accept this reality, and stop referring to it as a problem to be solved, we can surely have a more productive conversation about how to best engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life in a way thatâs meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that âthe Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.â He wants to âmeet people where they are,â and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be âfully observant.â
I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I donât have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and âdoableâ will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married âwhere they areâ is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.
As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:
We really donât understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of âpolite societyâ said at the advent of racial intermarriageâŚ.
If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status â so they leave.
Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:
I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.
Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would âlevel the playing field of Jewish identityâ â and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all bânai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.
But these are band-aids that donât address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be âpassionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.â Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples â all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Rabbi Darren Kleinberg has written a very important essay published in eJewishPhilanthropy this week, Hybrid Judaism: The Transformation of American Jewish Identity. Kleinberg was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in 2005 but describes himself as no longer Orthodox. He writes that identity is not a psychological category that describes who one âis,â but rather a sociological category that describes oneâs affiliations, the product of social interactions. As our interactions have become more complex, so does our identity, which he says is best described as âhybrid.â
Given this reality, it is fair to state that the binary distinction between Jew and non-Jew is an increasingly ineffective way to describe those people found in and outside of the American Jewish community.
[W]hat matters is whether people wish to be affiliated with the Jewish community, not how, or to what extent, they choose to identify themselves â after all, affiliation is identity. If we are able to do this, our Jewish communities will grow, even as their constitution will likely undergo significant change.
One practical consequence: Kleinberg recommends that synagogues that are not bound by Jewish law should remove all distinctions among participants so that those who do not self-identify as Jewish but affiliate with the Jewish community through a synagogue (for example, a spouse from a different faith tradition) should have full access to all ritual and leadership opportunities.
This is an essay that is well worth reading.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland, Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, wrote How Reporting Made Me a Better Rabbi for eJewishPhilanthropy also this week. She writes that tracking and recording interactions reflects that every person is important and every encounter can be profound. Keeping track reminds her to follow up, and people are shocked and overwhelmingly grateful that she gave them time and followed up with them.
Many of us profess a commitment to radical hospitality, but are we living it? When I am compiling my reports, I ask myself: Did I go above and beyond what I needed to do to make sure this individual I am âcountingâ feels embraced? If they were to reflect on our encounter, would they feel they had been respected and seen as a holy being? Did they leave the interaction feeling more connected to Judaism and our community? If they are outside the scope of my organizationâs mandate, have I done all I can to connect them elsewhere? Did anyone fall off my radar?
Mychal writes that an âevery person countsâ mentality is âour best shot as a Jewish community to speak to younger generations yearning for connection and individual attention. In the end, everyone wants to feel like they matter.â
She also writes that InterfaithFamily âstrive
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has passed a resolution to âallow individual congregations to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews.â Some Conservative synagogues were already accepting as members people from different faith traditions, but the practice has now been officially sanctioned. Rabbi Stewart Vogel, treasurer of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbisâ association) and vice chair of USCJâs Commission on Community and Covenant which considers ways to engage interfaith couples, said âThe Rabbinical Assembly believes in the idea that synagogue life should be open to those who wish to be part of the Jewish community and we are enriched by their presence.â The JTA article on the membership change noted,
The Conservative movement prohibits its rabbis from marrying or attending the wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples, though some of its synagogues celebrate intermarriages before they occur and welcome the couples afterward. In recent years, several Conservative rabbis have protested the intermarriage prohibition.
Finally, the TV show Switched at Birth has a new story line involving a Jewish woman married to a Christian man, and the manâs mother. The mother-in-law wants her new grandchild baptized, the mother doesnât, the father is in between. Â âSwitched at Birthâ gets an interfaith marriage dilemma just right.
Hoping to convince Lily to agree to the baptism, Katherine [the mother-in-law] invites her minister to explain the details of the ritual. It backfires. âI just sat there growing more and more uncomfortable. Hearing that reverend say âChristâ a million times, I have never felt more Jewish in my life,â Lily tells Toby afterwards.
Even though she isnât religious, Lily realizes Judaism is an important part of her identity and she wants that for her son as well. âJews are defined by being other than. Not Christian. For me youâre either Jewish different from the rest of the world and proud of it or youâre not. And Iâm Jewish,â she saysâŚ.
Lily perfectly explains the cultural bond Jews feel towards each other: âWe have our own history. Our own language. Our own food. Our own sense of humor. And everyone who is Jewish is bonded by that and I want my son to be in that little circle with me.â
Toby and his parents eventually come to terms with Lily raising Carlton Jewish. but they acknowledge they have a lot of learning to do. Toby says he will be taking some classes in Judaism, and Katherine responds that she will also.
There are of course different patterns of behaviors that interfaith couples follow to resolve issues like how to raise their children with religious traditions. The review makes this couple sound very unambiguous, and the mother-in-law very tolerant. But it sounds worth watching.
I recently got introduced to a childrenâs book called Zero by Kathryn Otoshi. Itâs a book aimed at preschoolers, but adults will also love it. In the book, Zero feels left out of the counting that all the other numbers get to do. They have value as counted numbers, but Zero doesnât. She tries to impress those numbers with little success and even tries to look like them. Zero then realizes that she can convince the other numbers that if they add her on, they will count as a higher number. With Zero, they became 10, 20, 30, 100 and more. After reading this book, my kids and I were prompted to a discussion about how it feels to be left out and how sometimes we want to dress like someone else or act like someone else to fit in.
As the story of Zero unfolded, my interfaith family inclusion buzzer went right off! (This happens to me quite often.) It reminded me of a talk I heard earlier this year at Temple Sholom that was sponsored by A Wider Bridge. The talk was given by the leaders of The Aguda, an Israeli NationalÂ LGBT Task Force.Â They shared about a tour they did in LA of one of the largest LGBTQ agencies in the world. When they asked an agency executive about where their work would be headed in the next 10 or 15 years, the executive responded that maybe they can work themselves out of a job in the decades to come. The Aguda leaders thought this was a sad answer because they believe it will take years to win legal equal rights across all areas that touch LGBTQ people in America and internationally. It might take just as long to bring about cultural acceptance including ending homophobic and transphobic discrimination. The Aguda leaders hope that when that day comes, there would be many more agencies and organizations devoted to LGBTQ people because communities around the globe would feel incomplete without the overt contributions that queer people would bring. In other words, queer people and their varied lenses of life would add essential value to leadership positions, boards and councils in all professions.
To me, the same is true when it comes to interfaith family inclusion in Jewish life. Congregations need to find ways to support couples around lifecycle events, especially weddings. They may also need to translate Hebrew so that people reading their website or sitting in services will have a more meaningful experience. Classes should be offered so that people who need a refresher or a first-time explanation have ways to learn. Rabbis need to share stories during family Shabbat gatherings that represent same-sex parents, single parents, interfaith families, gender non-confirming children and racially diverse families.
Congregations should look at membership forms, school enrollment materials and written ritual policy statements to make sure they are inclusive and sensitive. It will go far when congregants acknowledge the gift a parent who didnât grow up with Judaism is giving to help raise children with Judaism. It is wonderful when the parent who isnât Jewish can be referred to in the positive (rather than just ânon-Jew,â) as someone who is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, secular and so forth, along with the other parts of their identity like activist, volunteer, their profession, etc.
For families like mine, where both partners are Jewish, and for Jewish professionals, the main lesson from Zero is that we need to realize people from different backgrounds in our communities enrich our expression of Judaism. Inclusion of people who didnât grow up with Judaism should be seen as equal to those of us who did grow up with Judaism, and the gazillions of complicated amalgamations in between help us all count more. A diverse community adds energy, creativity, beauty and depth to this ancient and always dynamic civilization of Judaism.
Thank you to Zero for reminding me of this sacred goal.