Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a very eminent Jewish scholar and leader, has the next say in the âpromoting in-marriageâ debate, with The Facts On In-Marriage Advantages. He says we should engage in âtruth tellingâ 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 Â âWhoever you choose and love, we love you and want you to be part of us, to participate in our community, to share our destiny.â 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 Greenbergâs âintended messageâ that âWhoever you choose and love, we love you and want you to be part of us, to participate in our community, to share our destiny.â Proponents of in-marriage donât typically stop at âyour chances of having an active Jewish life are increased if you marry a Jew,â followed immediately by âwarmth and assurance of welcome no matter what,â which might work. Instead, they insist on saying that in-marriage is preferable â read, intermarriage is bad â or that in-marriage is a Jewish norm â read, if you intermarry you are a norm-violator. That is a terrible turnoff to most young Jews â 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 âintense educational and magnetic experiential programs that enrich livesâ that all of us want. As Rabbi Greenberg himself notes, those programs often include substantial numbers of interfaith families â and they could include many more, if marketed not as promoting in-marriage, but rather the joy and meaning of Jewish life.
Even if You Donât Plan To Convert, You Should Learn About Your Partnerâs Religious Heritage: The Value of Introduction to Judaism Classes
When 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 movementâs 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:Â âAnd I plan to convert once Iâve completed this class.â 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 Judaismâboth in and out of classâand 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 rabbiâand as someone who loves being Jewish and believes that Judaism brings meaning to my life and to the worldâI think itâs wonderful when someone chooses to become Jewish. I have served on many bâtei 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 personâs process of becoming Jewishâas long as the person is becoming Jewish for the right reasonâthat is, because she truly wants to be JewishâŠnot because her partner, or partnerâs 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: âTake your time, learn about Judaism and THEN decide if you want to convert.â 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 aboutâand presumably developed a greater respect forâtheir Jewish partnerâs 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 arenât Jewishâeven if they are actively practicing another religionâcan be part of their Jewish childâs religious upbringingâŠnot 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 childrenâs 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 ânecessityâ 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 donât think that they should refrain from enrolling in a class such as the Reform Movementâs 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. Thereâs tremendous value to learning about the history, beliefs and traditions of your partnerâs 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 fiancĂ© Samâs 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 partnerâs religion. Regardless of your own religious beliefs or practices, it can only benefit your relationship to learn more about your partnerâs 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 partnerâs religious heritage? What class did you take? What other steps have you taken to learn about your partnerâs religious beliefs and traditions?
As we mentioned last week, the âletâs promote in-marriageâ 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 âfor shameâ for their Did Moses Intermarry? Who Says He Didâand 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 âpromote in-marriageâ 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 Forwardâs Nathan Guttman for his article, Rabbis Shift To Say âI Doâ 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.
A group of âconcerned Jewsâ in response to the Pew survey propose to take concerted action to encourage Jewish leaders to encourage in-marriage. Julie Wiener writes that âthe intermarriage debateâ has âreignitedâ in a JTA article that was picked up by the Forward. Jodi Bromberg, InterfaithFamilyâs new President, and I wrote an op-ed for eJewishPhilanthropy, Promote Jewish Engagement, Not In-Marriage. Paul Golin from JOI also had an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week.
To us the key point is that all of the actions any proponent of in-marriage proposes â increased Jewish education, social networks, Israel trips â are worthwhile because they promote Jewish engagement, which is what everyone on all sides of this debate wants. We say encourage those actions for that reason â because they promote the Jewish engagement we all want, regardless of who people marry. Encouraging those actions because they promote in-marriage is self-defeating â it will alienate the majority of the audience who will intermarry regardless of what Jewish leaders recommend.
Ironically, perhaps coincidentally, yesterday was the day of the very moving memorial service for Edgar Bronfman. One very subtle comment stood out to me: Hilllary Clinton expressed gratitude to Edgar and Jan Bronfman for the friendship and support they provided to Chelsea Clinton when she married a Jewish man. Edgar Bronfman, who will be sorely missed, understood the importance of genuine acceptance and welcome much more than the group of Jewish leaders who want to encourage in-marriage.
Thereâs an uproar in Israel because a son of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is dating a Norwegian woman who is not Jewish. Daniel Treiman at JTA reports that some religious Knesset members are voicing dismay at the âbig problemâ of the son of the Prime Minister possibly intermarrying.
Almost every public statement that comes out of Israel about intermarriage equates it with assimilation and loss of Jewish identity and engagement. They just donât get that many interfaith families are engaging in Jewish life.
It would behoove Jewish leaders to extend an embracing welcome to prominent couples who intermarry. We live in a culture crazed with celebrity â if celebrity interfaith couples engage Jewishly, that may increase the interest of others. Thatâs why we urged Jewish leaders to extend a big mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton a few years ago.
Speaking of mazel tov, Liel Liebovitz had it right in Tablet:
Let us say the only thing one ought to say to a young woman who has chosen to âŠ move to Israel instead, which is shalom and welcome and so nice to have you here. And let us do whatever we can to make sure that should this young woman ever wish to become Mrs. Netanyahu Junior, she could either live comfortably and without harassment as a non-Jewish citizen of Israel enjoying equal rights and responsibilities, or, should she so wish, undergo a meaningful and beautiful conversion, a far cry from the censorious process currently offered by the imperious chief rabbinate. Until then, nothing but mazal tov to the young couple.
In an unfortunate convergence, some of the leading Jewish journalists have almost simultaneously published more counter-productive negative messages about intermarriage.
The first piece is by Gary Rosenblatt of the New York Jewish Week. Here is the letter to the editor I just submitted:
I applaud Rabbi Rick Jacobsâ comments at the URJ Biennial and to Gary Rosenblatt (âA Call For âAudacious Hospitalityâ,â Jan. 15). Rabbi Jacobs is right that âfinger-waggingâ is a turnoff for intermarried Jews and their partners who might otherwise make Jewish choices. Mr. Rosenblatt professes not to think of intermarriage as a âdisease,â but that is the message that he and Messrs. Cohen, Bayme and Wertheimer convey. The communal intervention they seek to encourage in-marriage would be a roadblock to the âon-ramps to Jewish lifeâ that Rabbi Jacobs rightly wants to build for the majority of the next generation who will be the children of intermarriages.
The second is an editorial in the Forward. Hereâs my letter to them:
I applaud Rabbi Rick Jacobsâ comments to the editors (âIntermarriage Rorschach Test,â Jan. 16) that âJewish living, values, commitmentsâŠ can be upheld in interfaith familiesâ and not the âexclusive province of Jewish-Jewish couples.â By questioning âhowever Jewishâ those individuals who choose to live lives of Jewish depth and meaning âactually are,â the Forwardâs editors become part of the problem. Characterizing intermarriage as âdiminishmentâ and in-marriage as âessentialâ is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will lead to more interfaith families who might otherwise make Jewish choices not doing so.
The people in these positions of Jewish leadership ought to stop to think about the impact of what they say about intermarriage on young interfaith couples â the Jewish partner or the partner who isnât Jewish â who are exploring Jewish life, considering making Jewish choices, and quite naturally looking for welcome, acceptance, and embrace.
We were sorry to learn that Jennifer Gorovitz will be stepping down as CEO of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.
Most of the commentary has focused appropriately on the small number of women who have lead federations â Jennifer was the first woman to head a large city Federation in North America â and expressed hope that many more will follow in her footsteps.
Weâre feeling a loss more personal to InterfaithFamily in particular and the field of engaging interfaith families more generally. Jennifer was a leader among Federation leaders in championing the importance of Federations taking action to engage interfaith families. She was instrumental in making funding possible for InterfaithFamily/San Francisco Bay Area, and spoke about the project with us on a panel at the 2012 General Assembly (the Federation systemâs annual conference).
We truly appreciate Jennifer saying in her own statement that she was âparticularly proud of transformative grants to Keshet and InterfaithFamilyâ and describing them as among âthe many inspiring ways that the Federation is building Jewish lives and deepening and broadening its reach.â And she is exactly right in saying that for Jewish Federations and organizations to maintain their relevance and thrive into the future, âwe will all have to embraceâŠ substantive and meaningful engagement of Jews of all ages and backgroundsâŠÂ including interfaith JewsâŠâ
Fortunately IFF has a lot of strong support in the San Francisco Jewish community â and that community has a lot of strong leaders. We wish the Federation well in their search to replace Jennifer and hope they find someone who shares her passion for engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. And we especially wish her well as she builds the next chapter in her life.