It Happens In the Best of Families

There’s 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 “big problem” 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 don’t 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 – if celebrity interfaith couples engage Jewishly, that may increase the interest of others. That’s 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 … 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.

 

Bad Attitudes from Jewish Journalists

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 Jacobs’ comments at the URJ Biennial and to Gary Rosenblatt (“A Call For ‘Audacious Hospitality’,” Jan. 15). Rabbi Jacobs is right that “finger-wagging” 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 “disease,” 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 “on-ramps to Jewish life” 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. Here’s my letter to them:

I applaud Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ comments to the editors (“Intermarriage Rorschach Test,” Jan. 16) that “Jewish living, values, commitments… can be upheld in interfaith families” and not the “exclusive province of Jewish-Jewish couples.” By questioning “however Jewish” those individuals who choose to live lives of Jewish depth and meaning “actually are,” the Forward’s editors become part of the problem. Characterizing intermarriage as “diminishment” and in-marriage as “essential” 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 – the Jewish partner or the partner who isn’t Jewish – who are exploring Jewish life, considering making Jewish choices, and quite naturally looking for welcome, acceptance, and embrace.

Thank You and Good Luck to Jennifer Gorovitz

Jennifer Gorovitz

Jennifer Gorovitz

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 – Jennifer was the first woman to head a large city Federation in North America – and expressed hope that many more will follow in her footsteps.

We’re 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 system’s annual conference).

We truly appreciate Jennifer saying in her own statement that she was “particularly proud of transformative grants to Keshet and InterfaithFamily” and describing them as among “the many inspiring ways that the Federation is building Jewish lives and deepening and broadening its reach.” And she is exactly right in saying that for Jewish Federations and organizations to maintain their relevance and thrive into the future, “we will all have to embrace… substantive and meaningful engagement of Jews of all ages and backgrounds…  including interfaith Jews…”

Fortunately IFF has a lot of strong support in the San Francisco Jewish community – 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.

He Will Be Missed: Remembering Edgar M. Bronfman, Sr.

All of us at InterfaithFamily are mourning the loss of Edgar Bronfman, who died last night.

Edgar BronfmanEdgar had a powerful wonderful personal impact on our organization. He was a true pioneer and visionary for the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

As early as 2004, we reprinted an article from the Jerusalem Post whose title conveyed Edgar’s attitude and foreshadowed all of his future efforts in our field: Bronfman: Children of Intermarriage Are Also Jews.

Back in 2008 I wrote that InterfaithFamily, which started as an independent non-profit in 2002, had plateaued at a funding level of $375,000 until 2006, and that I had given serious thought to closing IFF because of lack of funding support for our cause. But a tide turned in 2006, and we raised over $500,000 that year, and over $800,000 in 2007. How did this happen? Because Edgar Bronfman was the key catalyst. The Samuel Bronfman Foundation was our first major new funder that year.

We enjoyed support from Edgar and SBF for many years after. I’ve only been to the Jewish Funders Network annual conference (which isn’t meant to be a place for grant-seekers to seek grants) once: because Edgar and SBF sponsored a reception at which we spoke about IFF. And I had two memorable lunches with Edgar at what I understood to be “his” table at the Four Seasons.

More important than his impact on InterfaithFamily, though, was his impact on the cause of engaging interfaith families. The importance of welcoming interfaith families was the centerpiece of his important 2008 book, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance. Edgar’s son, Adam, has also been outspoken in the past on the same issues, with coverage in a 2007 JTA article, and in a speech at the 2008 GA.

But the sentiments that Edgar Bronfman spoke so explicitly and repeatedly about welcoming interfaith families have sadly been rare among Jewish leaders. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anyone of Edgar’s stature who has been willing to forcefully assert the critical importance of engaging interfaith families to the liberal Jewish future. When the Pew Report generated huge discussion in the Jewish world starting this past October, the voices of the leadership of the Jewish community seemed to all be delivering the tired old “stem the tide of intermarriage” message.

No one comparable to Edgar Bronfman was heard delivering his prophetic message, in Hope, Not Fear:

If we speak about intermarriage as a disaster for the Jewish people, we send a message to intermarried families that is mixed at best. How can you welcome people in while at the same time telling them that their loving relationship is in part responsible for the destruction of the Jewish people? No one should be made to feel our welcome is conditional or begrudging. The many non-Jews who marry Jews must not be regarded as a threat to Jewish survival but as honored guests in a house of joy, learning and pride.

 

The oft-cited figure that among intermarried families only 33 percent of children are raised Jewish does not take into account the possibility that if the Jewish community were more welcoming, those numbers could grow dramatically.

We can only hope that some Jewish leader somewhere will pick up the mantle Edgar has left behind and continue to champion the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

We send our condolences to Edgar’s family and to the staff of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the non-profit organizations that were closest to his heart.

“Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism”

Jews don’t live in ghettos anymore, and I think most of us would agree that this is a good thing. In our daily lives we interact with all sorts of people who are different from ourselves—people with different political views, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, people of different races and people of different religions. This exposure to diversity makes our lives varied and interesting. I for one don’t know of many people who would want to give this up.

We don’t live in a world of arranged marriages, and the simple fact is that people fall in love for all kinds of reasons, many of them inexplicable. Sometimes you just know when you have met “the one”—even if that person is someone totally different from you, and even if that person is totally different from what you had imagined for yourself.

Many people, before finding their mate, have a “checklist” of what they’re looking for in a partner. One of my friends always said she’d marry someone blonde, very physically fit and—most important—Jewish. So when she met a man at work who had dark hair, was chubby and didn’t like to work out—and was Methodist—she wasn’t concerned when they started to spend a lot of time together as friends. Sure he was smart, interesting and funny—but he wasn’t her “type.” But eventually their connection become deeper and they fell in love. It stopped mattering to her that he wasn’t blonde and fit. What mattered was that she loved him. And though she didn’t value her Jewish identity any less after falling in love with him than before falling in love with him, she was determined to find a way to make their relationship work since he was “the one” she loved. Eventually, they got married.

For my friend, “the one” is a Methodist. For Rabbi Michal Woll (who co-wrote the recently published book Mixed-Up Love with her husband Jon Sweeney) “the one” is a Catholic author. For me, “the one” happens to be another rabbi. But just because my friend and Michal married Christian men that doesn’t mean that either of them values Judaism less than I do.

Happy familyI’ve met numerous people who grew up with strong Jewish identities and who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people—many of whom spent much of their lives certain that they would never even date, let alone marry, someone who was not Jewish but who simply fell in love with someone they knew, like a college classmate, a work colleague or a best friend. Some of them shared with me that they went through deep soul searching and many tears after having fallen in love with someone of a different faith, but ultimately they came to the conclusion that they could spend their life with the person they loved as well as live a committed Jewish life and raise a Jewish family.

These people didn’t see themselves as having to make a choice between EITHER the person they loved OR the religion and community that they loved. Rather, they made the decision to BOTH spend their life with the person they loved AND to live a Jewish life and raise a Jewish family. Most people I’ve talked to who have made this BOTH/AND decision have acknowledged that there are challenges to being in an interfaith relationship (just like there are challenges in any relationship, especially one in which there are fundamental differences between the partners), but they would rather deal with those challenges together with their mate than having to choose EITHER/OR between their mate and Judaism, and they find meaning and often joy in facing those challenges TOGETHER.

The fact is that in today’s world, in most of the liberal Jewish community, having a partner who is not Jewish and living a committed Jewish life aren’t seen as necessarily mutually exclusive. As Michal and Jon share in Mixed-Up Love, faith and religion are VERY important to BOTH of them; that’s a large part of what attracted them to each other. It just happens that in their case they each have a DIFFERENT religion. Together they are raising a Jewish daughter and making it work for themselves and their family.

So don’t just assume that because a Jewish person is in a relationship with or married to someone who is of a different faith that their Judaism, the Jewish community and Jewish continuity aren’t important to them. Rather than EITHER/OR, perhaps they have chosen to commit to BOTH/AND.

We’re Expanding to Boston!

Boston SkylineWe are very pleased to announce that, thanks to a generous new grant partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, InterfaithFamily will be launching InterfaithFamily/Boston this fall. This will be our fourth InterfaithFamily/Your Community, joining Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area in our growing network of local community programs.

InterfaithFamily/Boston will have a full time Director, a 10 hour per week “ambassador” to focus on activities and connections in the North Shore area, and 10 hours per week of marketing and project management support. This initial staffing will enable us to focus on key objectives of our IFF/Your Community model:

 

  • People in interfaith relationships will connect with Greater Boston Jewish community resources as well as with others like them, through an active “interfaith ambassador” working on engagement and relationship building, resources and referrals for supporting life cycle events, a Greater Boston Community Page and robust listings of organizations, professionals and events on the online IFF Network, active social media, and traditional PR and marketing.
  • Jewish professionals and organizations will learn to attract, welcome and engage people in interfaith relationships, through inclusivity and sensitivity trainings, and resources on the IFF Network.

 

We will be working closely with other Greater Boston interfaith engagement organizations funded by CJP (URJ – Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, and the Jewish Discovery Institute) to help promote the programs they offer and build relationships with their program participants.

We have begun the hiring process; links to the Director and North Shore Ambassador positions are http://www.interfaithfamily.com/directorboston and http://www.interfaithfamily.com/nsambassador. Stacie Garnett-Cook, National Director of InterfaithFamily/Your Community, will supervise the Director of IFF/Boston. Deb Morandi, our Connections Coordinator, and Lindsey Silken, our Managing Editor, initially will be providing marketing and project management support.

Going forward, we are immediately seeking additional funding not only to continue the new staffing beyond July 2014, but also to expand it to a full time Project Manager, which will enable us to expand the above activities and add other key objectives of our model: helping new couples learn how to talk about and have religious traditions in their lives together, and helping people in interfaith relationships learn how – and why – to live Jewishly, through an array of consultations, workshops/group discussions, and classes.

We are extremely grateful to CJP for making this growth of the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative possible.

Opening the Gates

Leading up to and during my vacation there have been three big intermarriage stories in the media. They all revolve around whether, and how, Jewish communities are going to open their gates and draw in interfaith couples and families.

First came a JTA story by Uriel Heilman, The War Against Intermarriage Has Been Lost. Now What? The title pretty much tells the content of the article: Jewish institutions and in particular religious denominations are not “fighting against intermarriage” so much any more; the question now is how to react to the intermarriages that are going to happen; the overall strategy appears to be to engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism; the denominations differ in how far to go in that embrace, and how strongly to push for conversion. Heilman says there has been a shift in attitudes so that intermarriage is viewed as “a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.”

I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is – there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders – and I think it’s unfortunate to see gain only when there is conversion. But the real issue is, what are Jewish institutions and denominations going to do to engage with the intermarried. I would be more interested in seeing a JTA article on the efforts that are underway to do exactly that.

Second was a series of three essays on MyJewishLearning.com about patrilineal descent. A Conservative rabbi, Alana Suskin, in The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent, tells how badly she feels about not recognizing patrilineal Jews as Jewish in large part because it’s easy to convert. Then an Orthodox rabbi, Ben Greenberg, in Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach, also feels badly, and says that a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel… people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.” But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbis’ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a “balcony perspective” because of the impact the decision had on recognition of people as Jews by other denominations.

I would say, from what I would respectfully suggest is perhaps a more important “balcony perspective,” what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldn’t help but make this connection when reading the Forward’s profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader – and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahl’s essay originally in Sh’ma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to “reaffirm her Jewish legacy.”)

The Reform rabbi who wrote for MJL, Rachel Gurevitz, I think gets it right. In Patrilineal Descent: Why This Rabbi Feels No Angst she first acknowledges Rabbi Greenberg’s concern with complications for klal yisrael but says

[T]his is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.

Rabbi Gurevitz then focuses on what I would agree is most important:

[T]he individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.

The third major story was an excerpt of a “live discussion” on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilman’s perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I don’t have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that “invariably,” in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage “almost always” results in a diminishment of Judaism. That is the first reason he gives for not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. I would respectfully suggest that the chances of the children being raised as Jewish and the chances of the intermarriage not resulting in “diminishment” would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpe’s rationale.

Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesn’t officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isn’t Jewish isn’t subject to Jewish law. I can’t argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that it’s “bad faith” for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isn’t representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true “at least for me” but it comes across as a cheap shot at all of the serious committed rabbis who do officiate for interfaith couples

The common thread of all of this press is, how open are our gates going to be – in our efforts to engage interfaith couples and families, in who we recognize as Jews, and in for whom we officiate. Those are the key questions. I’m for wide open gates.

Now back to vacation.

Moms and Membership

Moms

I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.

Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who aren’t Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.

One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she “heard” the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.

On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid “non” in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying “not Jewish” verses “non-Jew.” The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already “belong?”

One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:

If you are on this website looking for information about a place to come for Shabbat, to celebrate holidays, for classes and religious school, to meet friends or to do social justice work, join us. If you want to build a relationship with clergy who care about you, join us. Joining us isn’t about writing a check. It is about showing up when you want inspiration and fellowship, support and grounding. Whether you grew up with Judaism or not, whether you want introductory classes or higher level learning, whether you can read Hebrew or have never been to a synagogue, join us. We are a diverse group and this gives us strength and purpose. All are welcome. You can help support our congregational efforts at every level and means of giving.

I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a “member.”

Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.

How to Be at Home in the Minority

Straddling two worlds, feeling like an outsider, taking on the identity of your family but still retaining your own—these are all difficult positions to be in, but familiar to many. In a recent blog post on Huffington Post, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman talks about being a minister married to a Jew and raising Jewish children. She is often in the minority, but as she points out, she is just as uncomfortable when she is among other Christians, because of the lack respect for other religions she sometimes witnesses.

The author was recently at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York state. She found herself among many religious leaders, discussing topics of inclusiveness. There, post yoga-session, she found herself getting a very spiritual reminder of “what is possible when we can be confidently rooted in our own traditions enough to reach out, embrace, and learn from ‘the other.’”

You can read her blog post here.

Embrace Gay Married Jews but not Intermarried Jews? I Don’t Think So

There is a pretty offensive article on the Forward today, Why Intermarriage Poses Threat to Jewish Life – But Gay Marriage Doesn’t. It’s by Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and like most Israeli commentators, he doesn’t understand liberal Jewish life and community in the US.

Finkelman says that liberal American Jewry has a lot to gain from embracing LGBT married Jews, but that embracing intermarried Jews is an “uphill climb” that will “depend on a huge investment” that he clearly thinks is not worth making.

This analysis is misguided on many levels, but what immediately comes to mind is the very small numbers of people who would be impacted by embracing LGBT married Jews. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of including LGBT Jews – and their partners – in Jewish life and community. But it is well known (perhaps not to Finkelman) that the rate of interfaith relationships is much higher among LGBT Jews than among straight Jews. The 2011 New York community study, for example, found (at 249) that while 22% of married Jews there were intermarried, 44% of LGBT married Jews were intermarried.

These wedge-driving arguments are really troublesome; many lay Jews are already upset with rabbis who will not officiate for interfaith couples but will officiate for LGBT couples if both partners are Jewish. I can’t imagine that advocates of Jewish LGBT inclusion would agree with Finkelman’s analysis and encourage more attention to the LGBT community at the expense of efforts to engage the intermarried. There has to be room in our communal efforts to do both.