Shifts in the Conservative Movement

There was an important JTA article yesterday about a prominent Conservative rabbi who reportedly floated the idea of officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – something Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing by their association, the Rabbinical Assembly – and then reportedly reversed course.

Since InterfaithFamily started operating thirteen years ago, we have always taken the position that Jewish clergy officiating at weddings of interfaith couples is a potential “door opener” to future Jewish engagement by the couple, while refusals to officiate or difficulties finding an officiant are potential “door closers.” We have always tried to be respectful of rabbis who chose not to officiate, while encouraging some rabbis in all communities to officiate in order to minimize the “door closing” effect.

Since InterfaithFamily got started we also have consistently tried to be helpful to the Conservative movement in its response to interfaith couples. Back in 2009 I wrote about how we were trying to recruit Conservative synagogues and professionals to list on our Network and thereby indicate that they welcomed interfaith families, and that we always publicized the Keruv initiative of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. At the time, we applauded a softening of the movement’s previous approach to aggressively promote conversion. In early 2013 we wrote about a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York who proposed a “fast track” conversion, in which a person who was not Jewish would convert first, and then study later, in order to enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at that person’s wedding.

Many observers have said that the Conservative movement has lost many members because the Reform movement is perceived to be more welcoming to interfaith couples. Promoting conversion – which appeared to be getting renewed emphasis just this past summer from Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary – continues to be a potential obstacle to a more welcoming stance. The inability of Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples is another obstacle.

A year or two ago, a highly-regarded Conservative rabbi told me that within five to ten years, Conservative rabbis would be officiating. I know another highly-regarded Conservative rabbi who is trying to figure out a way to be involved with interfaith couples along with another rabbi who would ultimately officiate at the wedding. And on Yom Kippur this year, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Conservative rabbi who had served as assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivered a sermon in which she revealed that she would officiate at intermarriages and had resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly.

According to yesterday’s JTA article, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, had sent an email to congregants seeking support for a policy that would enable him to officiate at interfaith weddings where the couple had committed to a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Apparently there were significant reservations about the proposed “Covenant,” so the proposed policy was withdrawn, although Rabbi Gardenwartz said the congregation would “explore ways to be more welcoming to interfaith families both before and after the wedding.”

I agree with Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s clubs who is quoted in the JTA article as describing “the move by someone of Gardenswartz’s stature to review policy on interfaith unions” as a potential “game changer for the movement” and “the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.” Although the head of the Rabbinical Assembly is quoted in the article as saying “we don’t see the performance of intermarriage as something rabbis can do,” we expect that as more and more Conservative leaders see officiation as a potential “door opener” and their existing policy as a potential “door closer,” we will see more moves like Rabbi Gardenswartz’s toward a change in that approach.

The Ever-Renewing People

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

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

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

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

.

 

The Temple Where I “Grew Up”

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

Rabbi Rothman

Rabbi Murray I. Rothman

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

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

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

Temple Shalom of Newton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthright Israel and Intermarriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Phish is Like Judaism for Newbies

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

Andrew at Phish

Andrew at a Phish show

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes Judaism Distinct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents Who Aren’t Jewish Raising Jewish Children

Between the announcement that Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky are expecting a baby and an interfaith xoJane article about a Catholic mother choosing to raise her sons Jewish, mothers who aren’t Jewish but are raising Jewish children have been receiving positive press and gaining visibility in recent weeks—it’s about time! And well-timed too, considering we celebrated Mother’s Day earlier this month. (There are, of course, fathers who aren’t Jewish raising Jewish children as well. My “Jew-ish” father having been one.)

Rabbi David Regenspan wrote a piece for InterfaithFamily that beautifully described non-Jews he aptly calls sojourners:

“They are models for the rabbi’s sermon about how to lead a good Jewish life. They light Sabbath candles and send their children to Hebrew school. They attend adult education classes on Jewish subjects. They sing boisterously at Jewish services and know the Hebrew words of every prayer. They serve on synagogue committees; they even become synagogue officers. …And they are not Jews.”

There are many non-Jews who fit this description, yet amidst the panicked communal conversation about the ‘shrinking Jewish population,’ these dedicated individuals and parents are often overlooked, not only in the communal conversation, but also in day-to-day religious life in synagogues all over the country.

Dorshei Tzedek

Photo courtesy of Dorshei Tzedek

I’m heartened by the many interfaith outreach initiatives in the Greater Boston area. In particular, the efforts made by Dorshei Tzedek, a growing Reconstructionist congregation in West Newton. The measures they’ve taken to be an inclusive community embodies their name, which means “seekers of justice” in Hebrew. “We seek to engage all of our members, whether Jewish or not, in our activities and the life of the congregation,” Dorshei Tzedek Rabbi Toba Spitzer shared with me.

A few years ago, the congregation committed to a year-long study and discussion process around inclusion. One of the results was a brochure the congregation gives out to new families that is posted on their website. It states: “Some of the values that inform our approach to welcoming our non-Jewish members [are]: inclusivity, diversity, commitment both to shared values and to Jewish tradition. While there are non-Jewish partners of our Jewish members who choose not to become involved in the congregation, there are also many non-Jewish members who participate actively and meaningfully in the life of the community. The purpose of this guide is to help clarify what it means to be a non-Jewish member of a caring and inclusive congregation that is dedicated to Jewish practice and learning.”

Apples & Honey

Photo courtesy of Dorshei Tzedek

Interfaith families are also represented in other areas of Dorshei Tzedek’s website, including this wonderful set of Shabbat videos.

What makes Dorshei Tzedek such a model for inclusion is not only their interfaith brochure and website, but the communal process that produced them, which goes well beyond simply providing lip-service. They’re making it happen. Inclusion and sensitivity, like all values, only serve their purpose when practiced and tailored to address the needs of the people we seek to include.

More Debate

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a very eminent Jewish scholar and leader, has the next say in the “promoting in-marriage” debate, with The Facts On In-Marriage Advantages. He says we should engage in “truth telling” with that they will increase their chances of having Jewishly engaged children if they marry other Jews.

We were heartened to see Rabbi Greenberg say that his intended message is that  “Whoever you choose and love, we love you and want you to be part of us, to participate in our community, to share our destiny.” The problem is that Rabbi Greenberg thinks that we can promote in-marriage and still convey that intended message, and we think he is very wrong about that.

Jodi Bromberg and I submitted this letter to the editor of the New York Jewish Week:

With enormous respect, we have never known any advocate of in-marriage to convey Yitz Greenberg’s “intended message” that “Whoever you choose and love, we love you and want you to be part of us, to participate in our community, to share our destiny.” Proponents of in-marriage don’t typically stop at “your chances of having an active Jewish life are increased if you marry a Jew,” followed immediately by “warmth and assurance of welcome no matter what,” which might work. Instead, they insist on saying that in-marriage is preferable – read, intermarriage is bad – or that in-marriage is a Jewish norm – read, if you intermarry you are a norm-violator. That is a terrible turnoff to most young Jews – especially to the majority of young Reform Jews whose parents are intermarried. It is unnecessary and destructive to mount a campaign to promote in-marriage as justification for the “intense educational and magnetic experiential programs that enrich lives” that all of us want. As Rabbi Greenberg himself notes, those programs often include substantial numbers of interfaith families – and they could include many more, if marketed not as promoting in-marriage, but rather the joy and meaning of Jewish life.

Learn About Your Partner’s Heritage

Even if You Don’t Plan To Convert, You Should Learn About Your Partner’s Religious Heritage: The Value of Introduction to Judaism Classes

Intro classWhen I was in rabbinical school in the late 1990s and in the years following my ordination in 2000 I had the great pleasure of teaching the Reform movement’s 16 week Introduction to Judaism class. I found it incredibly rewarding to have the privilege of exposing my students to the fundamentals of Jewish thought and practice. While a few of the students in my classes were Jews who wanted to learn more about their religious heritage, the vast majority of students were not Jewish but had Jewish partners and they registered for the class because they were considering becoming Jewish. In those days, like today, many Reform rabbis required that conversion students with whom they were working take the Intro class as one of the requirements for conversion.

At the first class session, I would always invite the students to introduce themselves and to share why they had signed up for the class. Often, after saying a few words about himself, a student would say:  “And I plan to convert once I’ve completed this class.” Sometimes, the student who said this had been married to a Jewish person for years, raised Jewish children, been a part of a synagogue community and already knew a lot about what it mean to be Jewish. In those cases, the Intro class was the final step in a long process, and the person speaking truly knew what was involved in choosing to become Jewish.

Other times, the student who said this was someone who was dating or perhaps was engaged to someone Jewish, but he admittedly knew very little about Judaism. In those cases, I would encourage him to have an open mind and to learn as much as possible about Judaism—both in and out of class—and to defer making any decision until he had a better sense of what it meant to be Jewish. Then, if living a Jewish life was truly compelling to him, conversion would be the right path for him to take.

As a rabbi—and as someone who loves being Jewish and believes that Judaism brings meaning to my life and to the world—I think it’s wonderful when someone chooses to become Jewish. I have served on many b’tei din (rabbinic courts) for people becoming Jewish, and I have always found the experience to be incredibly powerful. It is truly an honor to be part of a person’s process of becoming Jewish—as long as the person is becoming Jewish for the right reason—that is, because she truly wants to be Jewish…not because her partner, or partner’s parents, want her to be Jewish. To me, serving on a bet din where someone is converting for the purpose of making a partner or other relative happy would be a mockery of the conversion process. Which is exactly why I would tell students in my Intro class who were just beginning to learn about Judaism: “Take your time, learn about Judaism and THEN decide if you want to convert.” And even if the student who was dating, engaged or married to a Jewish person never made the decision to convert, they would have learned about—and presumably developed a greater respect for—their Jewish partner’s religion in the process of taking the class.

Ten to 15 years ago, when I was teaching Introduction to Judaism classes, there were lots of students in the classes. I think that this was in part due to the fact that the liberal Jewish community put a lot of pressure on Jews marrying people of other faiths to convince their partners to convert to Judaism. For a number of reasons, this has changed. Thanks to the work of many individuals and of organizations like InterfaithFamily, the liberal Jewish community has become more welcoming to interfaith couples and families. Parents who aren’t Jewish—even if they are actively practicing another religion—can be part of their Jewish child’s religious upbringing…not just driving their children to and from Religious School, but learning alongside their children, participating in synagogue and Jewish communal activities and having a role in their Jewish children’s lifecycle events. Perhaps that explains why some of the Introduction to Judaism classes near where I live in Philadelphia are having trouble attracting enough students these days. Conversion to Judaism, and the intro classes that are an essential part of the conversion process are no longer seen in many liberal Jewish circles as the “necessity” that they once were.

However, just because someone whose partner is Jewish does not intend to convert, and may intend to continue practicing his or her own religion, I don’t think that they should refrain from enrolling in a class such as the Reform Movement’s Introduction to Judaism or other similar class. In Philadelphia, for example, the Conservative Moment sponsors the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, which offers a 30-week Introduction to Judaism class twice yearly to learn about Judaism. There’s tremendous value to learning about the history, beliefs and traditions of your partner’s religious heritage. For example, in a recent blog, InterfaithFamily wedding blogger Anne Keefe writes about how she, a practicing Catholic, is taking an Introduction to Judaism class not because she is thinking about conversion, but to learn more about her fiancé Sam’s religion.

I would encourage anyone who is seriously involved with a Jewish partner to consider learning more about Judaism. Similarly, I would encourage any Jewish person in an interfaith relationship to learn about their partner’s religion. Regardless of your own religious beliefs or practices, it can only benefit your relationship to learn more about your partner’s religious heritage.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you are in an interfaith relationship. If you are not Jewish but your partner is, have you taken an Introduction to Judaism or other similar class? If so, what was the experience like for you? If you are Jewish, have you taken a class to learn about your partner’s religious heritage? What class did you take? What other steps have you taken to learn about your partner’s religious beliefs and traditions?

Kudos and For Shame

As we mentioned last week, the “let’s promote in-marriage” debate has reignited, and we weighed in with Promote Jewish Engagement, Not In-Marriage.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Reform movement, has weighed in with an important op-ed on JTA, Outreach to Interfaith Families Strengthens the Jewish Future. We offer kudos for thoughts like this:

While other voices will surely proclaim that endogamy is the only effective way to have a committed Jewish family, the Reform movement has something altogether different to say: Jewish commitment can be established in a variety of settings, especially with support and increased opportunity for learning and engaging. Falling in love with someone who is not Jewish is not a failure of Jewish commitment at a time when young adult lives are just beginning.

But to Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Leon Morris, we say “for shame” for their Did Moses Intermarry? Who Says He Did—and Why Do They Want To Know? Cohen and Morris certainly are entitled to take the misguided position that Jewish leaders should encourage in-marriage. But it strikes me as twisted and shameful to criticize those who want instead to promote Jewish engagement by interfaith families for holding out Moses and Tzipporah, among others, as Biblical models of interfaith couples who contributed to Judaism. The people in the “promote in-marriage” camp profess, however reluctantly, to want to engage in Jewish life those interfaith couples who do marry, but their readiness to take away these positive role models for that engagement reveal the very low priority they would give to those efforts.

Two related kudos: to our friend Rabbi Kerry Olitzky for publication of his new book, Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future. And to the Forward’s Nathan Guttman for his article, Rabbis Shift To Say ‘I Do’ to Intermarriage, which quotes at length Rabbi Daniel Zemel and Rabbi John Rosove, both of whose writings on officiation can be found on our site.