The Weight of Our Words

  

In seventh grade, I was so excited when this boy from school asked me out. I asked my mother if she could drop me off at the movie theater, not yet able to go anywhere on my own, and was surprised by the questions she asked. I don’t remember exactly what was said at the beginning, but she communicated to me that he was not an appropriate person for me to date. In all my teenage glory, I yelled and made a scene and told her she was closed minded. She calmly responded, “No I’m not. I’m very open minded. You can date and marry any boy or girl you want, black, white or brown, as long as they are Jewish.”

Looking back on it, this conversation became one of the foundational truths I held onto in my younger days. Knowing that my mom was in fact very open minded and liberal in many ways, I came to believe the distinction she made must have been appropriate. And this comment was supported by thousands of others, large and small, from family members, teachers, youth group advisors and friends who all seemed to accept this idea as a truth: that as a Jew I should be with another Jew.

It took me a few years into my rabbinate until I could fully shed this thinking and not only welcome but truly embrace the (many, many) blessings interfaith families bring to the Jewish community. I am here now, as a voice for inclusion in my new role as director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, because I understand and believe deeply that it is the right Jewish and rabbinic thing to do—to see and embrace the holiness and blessings of each and every individual.

Those who live by Jewish values should see no option but audacious welcoming and sincere gratitude for interfaith couples families that choose to connect to Judaism or Jewish community in any way. Partners of different faith backgrounds are making Judaism a more vibrant and meaningful religion. I’m a rabbi to help people find meaning in their lives. Throughout time, rabbis have done this in a multitude of ways. Rabbinic roles, and Judaism, have continued to evolve throughout time, affected by the cultures surrounding us and enriching each generation.

This is why I find myself in a new city, new job and preparing my family for our fourth move in six months. Matt, Roey, Stella Mae and I are, like so many young families, exploring our new city of San Francisco and creating the friends and community we hope will enrich our lives for years to come. My heart brings me to the Bay Area, to work for InterfaithFamily and make sure every person exploring the Jewish community, or loving individuals who take part in Jewish community, may feel the same warmth and love I offer my own family. Especially now, as a parent, I am realizing the weight of my words and advice that I offer to my own children and others. Maybe we can all explore this world together and enrich the younger and older generations with our warmth, kindness, creativity and spunk. I hope to meet you soon, whether for a cup of coffee on me (drop me a note at samanthak@interfaithfamily.com), at an upcoming event, or at my welcome breakfast where I look forward to meeting new people from the area on August 23 in our Steuart Street office—please stop by!

The Conservative Officiation Debate Continues

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

The wedding officiation debate continues

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 the Jewish Emergent Network – certainly among the most progressive younger rabbis in the country – expressed solidarity with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie for raising important issues, expressing “hope 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.”

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle had an excellent summary of the Conservative officiation debate in an 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 wouldn’t 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 – not overturning it, but defining what it means.

I was disturbed to read Steven Cohen quoted as criticizing the Cohen Center’s research showing a strong association between having a rabbi officiate and interfaith couples’ 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 Center’s interpretation makes much more sense: “Interactions 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 couple’s 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.”

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 “wedding talk,” while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony. He said, “I believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own children…. And I have to say, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t perform your wedding.’ They never get over it.” 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 is at odds with its members. “The 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.”

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 interesting 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 won’t officiate for interfaith couples, “but I wish I could.” (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 a 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 “there have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.”

The Flip-Side: Positive News About Intermarriage

  

Positive News

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

Alongside the negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.

Leave it to Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, to provide much-needed perspective on how rabbis asked to officiate are actually helping interfaith couples.

Naomi Schaefer Riley has an interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the B’nai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says

If there’s one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, it’s the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isn’t 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 “hypocritical” 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 couldn’t in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders “have no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.” Despite that, Riley does think the B’nai 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 – after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding – 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, an excellent article in the Boston Globe 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 – “It’s not a minus one, it’s a plus one.”

Rubel says Honeymoon Israel’s goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but “to empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.” 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 “had settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.” This is very important. It shows what’s 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 – and there’s 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 28 percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith families and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish – for example, 89 percent of interfaith families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67 percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaith 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 “exciting” to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.

One of the report’s conclusions is that “there is room to grow the program among … intermarried families” 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. It’s interesting that PJ’s 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 JCC’s; that’s 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 – with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying “more cultural books… more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazing” – other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying “We value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.” It’s very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith families’ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Library’s efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.

After young interfaith families often come b’nai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post has a very sweet story about two families’ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah – the father’s mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didn’t have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs “to confirm their identity.” The father’s wife/boy’s mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldn’t 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, “I’m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. I’m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.” The son says, “The tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.” One more proof of what’s possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.

That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed in a fascinating episode on interfaith marriage 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 – 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 – for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesus’ divinity.

Finally, the new rabbi at Montreal’s 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 “makes 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.” And Keren McGinity persuasively presents the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.

The Interfaith Marriage Debate Escalates

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

There’s been an explosion of news and comment about intermarriage in the past 10 days. On June 11 I blogged about Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s big reveal that he would officiate for interfaith couples who were the modern-day equivalents of the ger toshav, the “resident alien” who in the past was not Jewish but lived among and interacted with Jews and had some status under Jewish law. Lau-Lavie’s proposal got more coverage, from Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week, as well as a statement from the head of the Conservative rabbis’ association that reiterated their opposition to Conservative rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples.

The Forward publicized Lau-Lavie’s proposal and invited comment to a new “conversation” 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 rabbis’ association. Rabbi Rosenbloom writes that Lau-Lavie’s idea, while creative and imaginative, is fatally flawed, “too little, too late.”

“The 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 ‘resident alien’…. Mostly, this proposal is about making a rabbi feel comfortable doing something he or she wants to do but is not permitted to do.” 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. 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 “mega” “flagship” synagogue B’nai 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 “large and trendsetting, and “has roots in the Conservative movement, [but] is unaffiliated with any denomination.”

And also in the meantime a brave Orthodox Rabbi, Avram Mlotek, wrote “Time to Rethink Our Resistance to Intermarriage. He actually says, “A posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.” And “In order for the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, it’s time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices. Instead, welcome “the other” into the Jewish family. The rest is commentary.” 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 rabbis’ 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, “the Jews should know by now that ‘stopping’ intermarriage is a hollow quest. It is not going to happen…” 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 “let this trial and error run its course.”

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 – 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 won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – 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 “don’t see the people behind the numbers.”

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. That interfaith couples feel judged by the “tribalistic” mainstream, 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 can’t resist and longing for a past that cannot be recaptured.

In response to the Forward invitation to join the new “conversation” about intermarriage, I adapted the piece I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy, “How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to  Interfaith Families Be?” and the Forward published “We Must Embrace Interfaith Families – 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 – 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 “escalated” 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 – allowing people to drive to synagogue on Saturdays, to eat fish in non-kosher restaurants, to sanctioning same-sex marriage (he says he isn’t taking a stand on the last issue in this essay). The interesting point he makes, that I hadn’t thought of: If Conservative rabbis officiate at weddings for interfaith couples, it would be an untenable position for them to later say “yes, one of our rabbis married you, but no, we don’t consider your children Jewish.” In other words, they will have to recognize patrilineal descent; Rabbi Gordis laments, “Not that far off is the day when people whom Conservative Judaism calls Jews will not be able to marry Orthodox Jews or many Israelis.”

More Conservative News and Debate, and June Round-up

  

More Conservative News and Debate, and June Round-up from Ed CaseThis post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission

There’s been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who we’ve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in the Washington PostI performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.

Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offered It’s Time to Say “Yes.” Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation how The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a “Yes” to Interfaith CouplesBut another young Conservative rabbi wrote about five steps to “save Conservative Judaism” – with no mention of interfaith families.

In June an article in the Forward about rabbis trying to make the Conservative movement more gay-friendly mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; “Lau-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.”

Lau-Lavie’s Lab/Shul had announced an annual celebration on June 13 featuring “the revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americans” – but the news is out in an piece by the Forward’s Jane Eisner, Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews — And The Jew-ishAs Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use the ger toshav, resident alien, concept “within a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.” He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he won’t co-officiate). He will engage academics to “study whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.” He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.

Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is “fascinated” by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, to simultaneously comment that while we “need” Lau-Lavie’s approach, it won’t succeed unless Jews “understand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.”

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, has expressed open-ness to the experiment — but cautions that it’s 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 new Forward 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 aren’t raised Jews-by-religion, it’s not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have a new paper released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews don’t 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.  Eisner says she wants to “sustain and enrich modern Jewish life;” Cohen says “Being Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us – 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.” We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands – and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life – with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.

Razzie Awards

In an otherwise really nice article, How My Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Almost Didn’t Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family “survived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.”  Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but the Forward editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.

In an otherwise fine article titled College doesn’t 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 “college education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.” In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse – being intermarried – with assimilation. He should know better.

Doing Both

Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley’s TEDx talk about how they are raising their children with  Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.

Forthcoming Books

I’ll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim Keen’s Inside Intermarriage – I was honored to write the Foreword – will be available on August 1 but can be pre-ordered now. The third edition of our friend Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Wedding – now titled The Jewish Wedding Now – came out this past week.

How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?

  

How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?

This post originally appeared eJewishPhilanthropy and also appears on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission

applauded in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movement’s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit 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 movement’s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism and 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, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include – indeed, embrace – not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.

It’s 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, “it’s wonderful that your daughter has a partner – but wouldn’t you prefer that she were straight?” No, he wouldn’t, thank you.

The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and I’ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said “is she Jewish”? right in front of my daughter’s 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 “sub-optimal.”

Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like “ger toshav” 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 don’t want their children’s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more “in” or “out” and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies – 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 “us” 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 an aliyah 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 the Cohen Center’s recent research 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 synagogue’s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCAR’s 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. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ 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 “do both.” 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 – 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 – they mostly get “no” for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most won’t 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 haven’t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” 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 – yes, a truly audacious – hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and don’t 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?

Let’s Stop Using the Word “Problem” When Talking About Interfaith Marriage

  

Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgove’s article in the New York Jewish Week, “Mikveh Can Solve Conversion Problem” and Rabbi Shaul Magid’s article in The Forward “Why Conversion Lite Won’t Fix The Intermarriage Problem.”  Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word “problem.”

I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isn’t the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposed—in fact, I often don’t 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 wasn’t Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word “problem” 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 “arguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewry”). 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 marriages—the Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different background—are also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, we’ve 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 they’re a problem. So, here’s a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, let’s stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.

Throughout the four years that I’ve 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, I’ve been especially sensitive to the language that’s used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. I’m constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who aren’t Orthodox. We hear about the “problems” and “challenges” of interfaith relationships and we see classes on “the December Dilemma” and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.

I’m proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesn’t 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 “the December Dialogue” or “the December Discussion.”

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 opportunity—an 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 it’s 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 that’s meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.

Meeting People Where They Are

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com 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 “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” He wants to “meet people where they are,” and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be “fully observant.”

I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I don’t 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 “doable” will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married “where they are” 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 don’t 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 “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage….

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 – 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 “level the playing field of Jewish identity” – and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all b’nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.

But these are band-aids that don’t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be “passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.

Hybrid Identity, Every Person Counts, Shifting Boundaries and Intermarriage on TV

  

Women talking together.

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com 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 “is,” but rather a sociological category that describes one’s affiliations, the product of social interactions. As our interactions have become more complex, so does our identity, which he says is best described as “hybrid.”

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 – 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 “counting” 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 organization’s mandate, have I done all I can to connect them elsewhere? Did anyone fall off my radar?

Mychal writes that an “every person counts” mentality is “our 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.”

She also writes that InterfaithFamily “strive to be the Jewish organization that says ‘yes’ after people have heard too many ‘no’s.’ That doesn’t mean we don’t have our own boundaries as individual professionals or as an organization. It means that we say ‘yes’ to having a deep interaction regardless of what someone seeks.”

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has passed a resolution to “allow individual congregations to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews.” 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 rabbis’ association) and vice chair of USCJ’s Commission on Community and Covenant which considers ways to engage interfaith couples, said “The 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.” 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.

Two articles in February in the New York Jewish Week and the New Jersey Jewish News describe tensions in the Conservative movement over interfaith issues.

Finally, the TV show Switched at Birth has a new story line involving a Jewish woman married to a Christian man, and the man’s mother. The mother-in-law wants her new grandchild baptized, the mother doesn’t, the father is in between.  ‘Switched at Birth’ 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. “I just sat there growing more and more uncomfortable. Hearing that reverend say ‘Christ’ a million times, I have never felt more Jewish in my life,” Lily tells Toby afterwards.

Even though she isn’t religious, Lily realizes Judaism is an important part of her identity and she wants that for her son as well. “Jews are defined by being other than. Not Christian. For me you’re either Jewish different from the rest of the world and proud of it or you’re not. And I’m Jewish,” she says….

Lily perfectly explains the cultural bond Jews feel towards each other: “We 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.”

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.

The Sacred Goal of Interfaith Family Inclusion

  

I recently got introduced to a children’s book called Zero by Kathryn Otoshi. It’s 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 doesn’t. 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.

Photo credit: Amazon.

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 National LGBT Task Force. 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 didn’t grow up with Judaism is giving to help raise children with Judaism. It is wonderful when the parent who isn’t Jewish can be referred to in the positive (rather than just “non-Jew,”) 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 didn’t 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.