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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
The discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating for interfaith couples has quieted, other than a terrible piece by one of the Cohen Centerâs own researchers, that IÂ blogged about separately. Iâd rather focus on the positive responses to intermarriage as the High Holidays approach, and fortunately there is are five of them!
Back when Mark Zuckerberg was marrying Priscilla Chan, there were all sorts of derogatory comments from critics of intermarriage to the effect that his children would not be Jewish. So I was very pleased to see ZuckerbergâsÂ Facebook postsÂ showing him with his daughter in front of lit Shabbat candles, what looked like a home-baked Challah, and a message that he had given her his great-great-grandfatherâs Kiddush cup. The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.
Second, Steven M. Cohen, in aÂ new pieceÂ about declining number of Conservative and Reform Jews, says that arresting the decline âmeans encouraging more non-Jewish partners and spouses to convert to Judaism.â Thatâs not the positive news â the positive news is a much different response: the âradical welcomingâ recommended by Rabbi Aaron Lerner, the UCLA Hillel executive director â a modern Orthodox rabbi, who grew up in an interfaith family himself. Rabbi Lerner writes thatÂ on college campuses, the intermarriage debate is already overÂ â meaning that they regularly serve students who come from intermarried households, and sometimes those with only one Jewish grandparent, who they serve as long as they want to become part of their community in some way. Cohen could learn a thing or two from Rabbi Lerner:
Hillel and our Jewish community benefit enormously from that diversity.
Nobody can know for sure whether someone will grow into Judaism and Jewish life just because of their birth parents.
A Jewish student in an interfaith relationship may be inspired by our Shabbat dinners to keep that tradition for his entire life, no matter who he marries.
If these young students feel intrigued by Jewish learning, choose to identify with their Jewish lives and take on leadership roles in our community, they will be the ones shaping the future of Jewish life in America. But none of that happens if we donât make them welcome and included members of our campus communityâŚ I understand the communal sensitivities to intermarriage. But it happens whether we like it or not. If we donât give these young men and women a right to be part of our community, we risk losing them forever.
A third inclusive response is reported by Susan Katz Miller inÂ a piece about PJ Library. She notes that PJ is inclusiveâwhen it asked in its recent survey about Jewish engagement of subscribers, it asked if children were being raised Jewish or Jewish and something else; it also asked how important it was to parents that their children identify as all or partly Jewish. She reports being told that 50% of interfaith families in the survey said they were raising children Jewish and something else, and 45% Jewish only. She quotes Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, as saying ââThis entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether itâs the exclusive religion in the home or notâ she says. âIf your family is looking for tools, and youâre going to present Judaism to your children, whether itâs the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.â
(There were other brief news items that are consistent with the value of an inclusive approach. The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent had a nice pieceÂ about interfaith families celebrating the High Holidays(featuring Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia), and the secular paper in Norfolk, Virginia had aÂ nice articleÂ about Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gillâs work with an interfaith couple. The national past president of the Reform movementâs youth group wrote anÂ inspiring pieceÂ about how she discovered the Jew she is meant to be â revealing incidentally that she comes from an interfaith family. Batya Ungar-Sargon, theÂ ForwardÂ opinion editor,Â notesÂ the element of coercion in the Orthodox approach to continuity, with disavowal of coercion and embrace of freedom the point of being liberal. Thereâs also an interesting article inÂ America,Â a Jesuit publication,Â When a Jew and a Catholic Marry. The author interviews four couples to illustrate different ways they engage with their religious traditions.)
In the fourth important item, Allison Darcy, a graduate student, asksÂ Are Your Jewish Views on Intermarriage Racist?Â She had decided not to date people who werenât Jewish because there was âtoo much pushback from the Jewish communitiesâ in which she felt at home. A seminar on race theory prompted her to examine the implications of Jewsâ prioritizing of in-marriage. For religious Jews who want to share their religion, it stems from a religious source; otherwise some amount of the conviction that Jews should marry Jews is based on ideas of racial purity.
Itâs not a religious argument. Itâs a racial one. Itâs about keeping a people undiluted and preventing the adoption of other cultural traditions, which are clearly evil and out to usurp us. Itâs a belief that itâs our duty to keep everyone else away, rather than to strengthen our own traditions so that they can stand equally and simultaneously with others. In my mind, itâs the easy way out.
Darcy acknowledges that the difference in Jewish engagement between children of in-married vs. intermarried parents â but aptly points to the Cohen Centerâs study on millennials to say that âby encouraging engagement with the community, we can near even this out.â Her conclusion: aside from religious-based objections,
This idea that intermarriage is dangerous is a judgment, pure and simple. It implies that other lifestyles are inferior, and that we ourselves arenât strong enough to uphold our own. And at the end of the day, itâs racist to insist on marrying within your own race for no other reason than they are the same as you.
The fifth itemâI was startled by this, given past pronouncements by theÂ Jerusalem Postâis anÂ editorialÂ that takes the position that Israel should allow everyone the right to marry as they chose, not subject to the control of the Chief Rabbinate.
If at one time it was believed the State of Israel could be a vehicle for promoting Jewish continuity and discouraging intermarriage, this is no longer the case. We live in an era in which old conceptions of hierarchy and authority no longer apply. People demand personal autonomy, whether it be the right of a homosexual couple to affirm their love for one another through marriage or the right of a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Dragging the State of Israel into the intricacies of halacha is bad for personal freedom and bad for religionâŚ.
âŚ Instead of investing time and energy in policing the boundaries of religious adherence, religious leaders should be thinking of creative ways to reach the hearts and minds of the unaffiliated.
âŚ Those who care about adhering to the intricacies of halacha should, of course, have the right to investigate the Jewishness of their prospective spouse.
But for many Israelis, love â the sharing of common goals and values, including living a Jewish life as defined by the couple, and a mutual willingness to support and cherish â is enough.
TheÂ Jerusalem PostÂ endorsing interfaith couples living Jewish lives as defined by the couplesânow that is another great start to the new year. I hope yours is a sweet and meaningful one.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Michelle Shain, a researcher at the Cohen Center at Brandeis, has written a very damaging article about the Cohen Centerâs game-changing study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, about whichÂ Iâve said, âThe many rabbis who donât officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples wonât engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.â Shain says she is a social scientist and wants people to understand exactly what the study demonstrates and what it does notâbut she picks and chooses pieces of the study that support the apparent intention of her article to support maintaining Conservative rabbisâ opposition to officiation for interfaith couples.
The key findings of the study were that interfaith couples who had a rabbi as sole officiant were far more likely to join synagogues and raise their children as Jews. Shainâs main point is that those who chose to have a rabbi had richer Jewish experiences, so that the âlogical conclusion is that their stronger pre-existing Jewish commitments led themÂ bothÂ to seek a rabbi to officiate at their weddingsÂ andÂ to engage in Jewish life after their weddings.â She says that on four measures, including having a special meal on Shabbat, there was no difference between couples who had a rabbi and those who did not after controlling for the pre-existing differences.
What she doesnât say is that the study says (at p. 21) that after controlling for pre-existing differences, âintermarried couples who married with a sole Jewish officiant were still significantly more engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples on many of the outcomes discussed above. In particular, they were significantly more likely toÂ raise their oldest child Jewish by religion, enroll children in a Jewish early childhood education setting,Â belong to a synagogue, attend religious services, celebrate Jewish holidays, participate in Jewish community activities, donate to Jewish or Israeli causes, and talk to family and friends about Judaism.â (emphasis added)
Shain also stretches to mentionâwithout citationâa 2010 study that she says shows that officiating rabbis donât have subsequent contact with couples, and take the standard pot-shot that without a random sample survey, no one can say anything about the impact of officiation on subsequent Jewish engagement.
Shain like anyone else is entitled to her views on policy, but is it appropriate to position oneself as an objective, dispassionate researcher and be selective like this? Conservative rabbis who oppose officiation have already made the pre-existing differences argument, and now have support from a researcher at the Cohen Center itself, when the key findings about raising children and synagogue membership arenât touched by that argument.
I would urge Conservative rabbis to consider what the study very carefully does say, without claiming causation: ââInteractions 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 That is entirely consistent with common sense and experience, which sometimes are as important as research.
Fortunately, there have been five very positive responses to intermarriage in recent weeks â you can read about themÂ here.
Postscript September 19
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 donât 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, âNo Iâm not. Iâm very open minded. You can date and marry any boy or girl you want, black, white or brown, as long as they are Jewish.â
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 doâto 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. Iâm 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.Â 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 firstname.lastname@example.org), 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 officeâplease stop by!
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 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.