My Marriage Choice Doesn’t Dictate My Jewish Commitment

Mychal at a conference

Mychal (right) with other college students at the first of many Jewish professional conferences

When I was in college, I had a serious boyfriend who wasn’t Jewish.  At that time I also got involved as a leader with Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. For me, these two major preoccupations with my time were not in conflict. In fact, I brought him frequently to Hillel events and was the first to correct people when they assumed he was Jewish.

In my sophomore year, I was invited to a major conference for Jewish professionals.  I was excited to be one of the few representatives of engaged college students. The highlight of the conference was a plenary about intermarriage. I was surprised to walk into a room full of hundreds of people. I honestly, and naively, hadn’t realized what a major hot-button issue this had become. So there I was, a teen amidst a sea of (mostly angry, frustrated) Jewish leaders, listening to them try to figure out why Jewish young people were interdating and intermarrying, surmising that it must be a result of those Jews not having a strong Jewish identity. I was a shy kid, and it took a lot for me to muster up the courage to raise my hand. When they saw me, a real live flesh-and-blood Jewish teenager, the room hushed. I told them about my boyfriend. I told them that I was a Jewish leader on my campus. I had come to their conference. Clearly, I was a Jew with a strong identity.

I wanted to dispel what I still consider a myth: that interdating and identity are always necessarily linked. No one knew what to do with my proclamation as it flew in the face of everything they thought they knew. Was I the ideal product of their Jewish educational system? Or did I represent their deepest failure? I think it made an impression (my quote appeared in Jewish newspapers). What I didn’t know at the time was that a major population study had just been published that year, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. That survey was famous for reporting that the national Jewish intermarriage rate had risen 27% since the year I was born. I had unwittingly stepped into one of the earliest moments of communal panic, and I was a confusing representative of my age cohort. Looking back, I would say it was my first public piece of advocacy for the Jewish interfaith community.

A few weeks ago, a conference of Jewish scholars met to explore the idea of “Jewish identity,” co-organized by Professor Ari Kelman, a friend of mine from Stanford University and a leading thinker in the field of Jewish education.  He says of the subject, “No one has the foggiest idea what Jewish identity even means.” He asks, “Why is identity the desired outcome of Jewish education?”  It’s a great question.  The Jewish leaders in my workshop back in 1990 figured that this elusive thing called Jewish identity must ensure that someone would want to marry within Judaism. But, even as a college student, I had every intention of leading a Jewish life, and my choice of partner was not going to change that.

As if he was at that workshop with me as a teen, Kelman asks, “In what other world is marital choice”—[which is thought to be] a key indicator of Jewish identity—“a valuable educational outcome?” I remember lots of talk when I was growing up in a synagogue about Jewish identity. If they could instill in us a sense of deep Jewish connection, we would marry someone Jewish and raise Jewish kids. But I don’t think that as a community we were asking the right questions. The mistake was that one can’t always make accurate assumptions about the degree of an individual’s Jewish passion merely by asking who they are dating or marrying.

When I look at my kids around the Shabbat table (or even my college students when I worked for Hillel), I’m not thinking, “Phew, I’m doing a good job. They are going to have strong Jewish identities.” What am I hoping? I hope that because they are learning to live life through a Jewish lens, they will grow up looking at the world with wonder and awe, possess a strong sense of self, and understand that they are interconnected with other people and the natural world. The goal is living a life of meaning, not possessing a Jewish identity.

Perhaps when a Jewish person is partnered with someone who isn’t, instead of making assumptions about a faulty Jewish identity, we can ask instead what fills their lives with meaning. Now that’s an answer I can’t wait to hear.

Seth Meyers is Jew-ish

Seth Meyers reveals that…he’s not Jewish! Despite what “every single Jewish person thinks,” he is not Jewish (though he does have a Jewish grandfather).

In this clip from Late Night with Seth Meyers, he talks about getting married to his now wife Alexi, who is Jewish, under a chuppah, and about his in-laws who consider him “Jewish enough.” Meyers may have thought he was merely being funny, but little did he know he was becoming the poster celebrity for InterfaithFamily!

How I Met the Mother of My Children

Mychal's wedding

Mychal and Kirsti's wedding ceremony

Divinity school is an unlikely place for a rabbi to meet her spouse. In my first week of graduate school, I became friends with a Coptic nun from Egypt, a Southern Baptist minister, a Jewish Buddhist and a young scholar of Early Christianity. The last would one day become my wife. I was one of a handful of Jewish students and I relished the opportunity to study religion more broadly within this diverse community before making the final decision to become a rabbi. It became increasingly clear to me that I wanted to pursue a career like my classmates who were studying to become ministers and priests. They were community builders, teachers, healers in a fractured world. Apparently, I needed future ministers to help me decide that I wanted to become a rabbi.

For the first time in my life, I was dating a Jewish man. Since I was seriously considering becoming a rabbi by this time, I believed I had to marry someone Jewish, and he met all the criteria of a perfect spouse for me. He was not only Jewish; we had been counselors together at a Jewish camp, he spoke fluent Hebrew, had spent time in Israel and studied Judaism in college. But he simply wasn’t the right person for me.

My life took a major turn when I met Kirsti. She had grown up in a non-religious household with parents who had rejected Christianity. So, of course, she became fascinated by religion: religious people, religious texts, religious language. Like me, she was pursuing her masters at Harvard Divinity School. She would go on to earn a PhD in Early Christianity as I embarked on rabbinical school. We shared a love of religious mysticism and stayed up nights talking about Jewish and Christian mystical texts, and struggling with belief. In those early days, we also had to process the reality that dating a woman was new to both of us which, frankly, overpowered any worry about coming from different religious backgrounds.

Although she did convert many years into our relationship, Kirsti and I still question religion together and bring our knowledge, ideas and queries to the dinner table. We address our children’s musings with honesty and depth rather than supplying overly clear-cut answers we think they should be hearing. We hope our kids will be inspired to treat all people and ideas with respect and inquiry while being grounded in a rich, Jewish tradition. My Jewish life has been profoundly shaped by traveling this path with Kirsti for the past 20 years. She has led me to challenge pieces of our tradition that I blindly followed, and has deepened my connection to certain parts of our liturgy and rituals by seeing them in a new light.

I am delighted that as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, I have the opportunity to help families from mixed backgrounds navigate Judaism like we have. I will also strive to help Jewish communities become more welcoming to all types of people who don’t fit the long-gone model of a traditional, Jewish family. We are most enriched as a community when we offer space for people to bring their whole selves and their full narratives to Jewish life.

Maybe a rabbi meeting her spouse at divinity school is a rarity, but each family’s story is unique, with its own twists and turns. Who we love and choose to share our lives with cannot be reduced to a checklist of criteria to be met. Our stories are far more interesting than that.

Remembering My Mother

My mother, Beatrice Case, died one week ago, on March 16, 2014. She was 95 and had been remarkably healthy until just two months ago. She was a much-loved woman, especially by my 97-year-old father with whom she shared 72 years of marriage. My dad says his “secret” for a long and happy marriage is to never go to bed mad and always say “I love you.”

Bea Case

Bea Case holding her third great-grandchild at his bris in November 2013

I don’t usually like to talk about my family in connection with my work at InterfaithFamily. But there is something important that I want to share to honor her memory.

My mother’s father was a traditionally observant Jew. My parents were founding members of the Conservative synagogue to which my mother schlepped my older brother and then me to religious school three times a week, a 25-minute drive each way. They made their opposition to intermarriage unmistakable to my brother and me.

In my eulogy I said that in the spring of 1968, when I was a senior in high school, I had started going out with Wendy, who wasn’t Jewish at the time (or for many years later).  One day I asked my mom, “what would be so bad if I kept on going out with Wendy?” She said: “Well, you might really like her a lot, and you might go to college and not meet any one you like as much, and then you might get back together with her, and then you might want to get married.” That’s exactly what happened.

I also said in my eulogy that six years later, when I told my parents that I wanted to marry Wendy, they had a choice to make, and they put their love for me and their devotion to their family above anything else. Wendy feels that they came to embrace her as their own daughter.

At shiva the next day a cousin, who visited with my father while the funeral was taking place (he isn’t able to travel), told me that at about the same time as I was giving my eulogy, my father started telling her about exactly the same thing. He said, “Bea and I talked about it. We decided that we didn’t want to turn our backs and lose our son. And look at the wonderful family that we got.”

Also at shiva my mother’s childhood next-door neighbor and friend Elaine was talking to Wendy and said that my mother lived a “charmed” life. Wendy said, “probably the worst thing that happened to her is that Ed married me” and Elaine said, “that’s right.” Wendy said, “if I’m the worse thing that happened to her, I guess she did have a pretty charmed life,” and Elaine readily agreed. Because Wendy and I have been married for almost 40 years. Our daughter and son are happily married to wonderful partners; my mother adored all of them, and the feeling was mutual. My mother got to meet and know three great-grandchildren; the oldest one, who is three, is asking, “where is great-grandma?”

I would like to think that my mother and my father could see into the future the whole little universe of our loving family that would result from their loving embrace. But that embrace made something more than a loving family possible – they opened doors to continuing Jewish life. Wendy and I have been very Jewishly engaged. We can’t know for certain what our children’s families’ long-term relationship to Judaism will be – but our daughter’s wedding was officiated by a rabbi – my parents got to attend – and so was our son’s; each of our grandsons had a bris – my mother got to attend the second one, just last November; and our 8-month old granddaughter currently is a regular attendee with her parents at services at Mishkan in Chicago.

I said in my eulogy that my mother leaves behind the ongoing radiating ripple effect on the world that she and her thousands of interactions have had. She set a great deal of warmth and brightness and loving-kindness in motion. And she set the possibility of an ongoing Jewish future in motion too. I know that for me and my family her memory will always be a blessing.

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.

Why Rabbis Ask Couples Getting Married About Future Children

Ari officiating a wedding

Rabbi Moffic officiating the wedding of Mark Swartz and Liz Treacy

In the recent article in The Forward, a Rabbi in Los Angeles explains that he will officiate for an interfaith couple at their wedding if they commit to a Jewish future, Jewish education for their children and a Jewish home. A Conservative Rabbi who left his rabbinical union over being able to officiate at interfaith weddings quotes Israeli President Shimon Peres saying: “It’s not important if your grandparents are Jewish. What is important is if your grandchildren are.” The only condition he has is that an interfaith couple getting married “should commit to running a Jewish household, raising Jewish children and to learn with me what that means.”

Some rabbis may make all couples (whether they are both Jewish or only one is Jewish) promise to raise Jewish children in order to marry them, but many only speak about this test for interfaith couples. It makes sense for rabbis to speak about how the couple will raise their children. Couples often sit with the rabbi who will perform their wedding for several meetings which gives them ample time to plan the ceremony and usually also time to discuss where they are with religion, extended family issues and what they are thinking their home will look like in the years to come. If a couple wants a rabbi at their wedding, they care about Judaism in some ways. Certainly a conversation can be had about how they plan to live Jewishly and raise their children.

However, I think that too much focus, as is clear from this Forward article, is placed on having a premarital couple talk about Judaism only in terms of how it will affect their children. I for one care more about what the adults who will stand under the chuppah with me think about their own Judaism.

Do they know anything about the religion that they think they don’t want in their lives? Do they know what Judaism says about the major questions of life such as the meaning of sin or suffering or ideas about afterlife and heaven? Do they understand who is Israeli (and for that matter when, why and how Israel exists)? Do they search for calm, anecdotes to stress, balance, order, meaning, peace, love and purpose? Judaism addresses these areas of our lives.

Did they once attend religious school at a congregation and even celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah by reading Torah, but have not gone into a synagogue since (maybe except for some High Holiday services as a passive participant?) I hope that by developing a relationship with the couple as we plan their wedding that the couple will think about exploring Judaism in new ways. I hope that the Judaism they find is open, accessible, relevant, realistic, challenging, inspiring, uplifting, beautiful, joyful and sophisticated. If adults are turned on by Judaism; if they are called to action, supported by community, filled with pride at Jewish accomplishments…if they cook the food, live the values of tzedakah and menschlekeit (being a good person), if they visit Israel, find the words of the prayers to resonate, they will want their children to experience Judaism.

Are there congregations where one can experience Judaism like this? There are. Are there study groups, trips, volunteer opportunities and cultural events that have this kind of Jewish vibe? There are.

If we ignore the Jewish life of adults and simultaneously try to get them to follow the patterns of their parents in joining congregations so that children can have a bar or bat mitzvah, that experiment is over. We can’t infuse guilt or a sense of responsibility or obligation as the vehicle to promulgate Judaism to the next generation. People getting married aren’t swayed by that. Instead, we need to ask these adults getting married to give Judaism a second chance for the sake of their own souls.

Netanyahu’s Relationship: It Is Up to Us, Not Them

NewsIt is with great disappointment that I take in the flurry of media articles about the son of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s relationship with a Norwegian student who is not Jewish. In a world filled with monumental challenges, the press focuses our attention on the dating choice of one young man, even going as far as making a comparison between young Mr. Netanyahu and Prince Edward VII. Why is the news interest focused on the matrilineal inheritance of the young woman, rather than her character? The real story here is that the press thinks a high profile interfaith relationship is a scandal and it isn’t.

Is there a relationship between the future of Judaism and the person we date? The truth is, we really do not know. Many smart and engaged Jewish leaders have interpreted the results of the October Pew survey with a resounding “Yes”! I would like to offer up a different perspective, one that is rooted in InterfaithFamily CEO Ed Case’s intelligent commentary on the topic. The future of Judaism is not at risk as a result of intermarriage. It is at risk due to a lack of engagement among Jews, their partners and families, and the organized Jewish professional community. We do not know how the statistics on Jewish identity would differ if we had chosen to promote a different philosophy on intermarriage 20 years ago.

We should be looking inward, to ourselves and our behavior as the keepers of Judaism. It serves no purpose to fault an individual person’s behavior for our shortcomings as a community. What if once a month, each of us who are connected to the Jewish community took the time to reach out to another individual or family who is not connected? We could invite someone into our home for Shabbat dinner, accompany them to a service at our synagogue, to a Jewish fair, festival, or concert. It is amazing what can happen when we reach out our hand to another person. As connected Jews, our individual daily actions, including our words, can and will make a great impact on the future of Judaism in our communities.

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.

Debate Reignited

A group of “concerned Jews” in response to the Pew survey propose to take concerted action to encourage Jewish leaders to encourage in-marriage. Julie Wiener writes that “the intermarriage debate” has “reignited” in a JTA article that was picked up by the Forward. Jodi Bromberg, InterfaithFamily’s 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 – increased Jewish education, social networks, Israel trips – 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 – 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 – 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.