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We love Mo Willems books in our house! My little one just brought home one of his gazillions of titles called, I Really Like Slop. As I have written before, I now see the world through interfaith family lenses. When we read this story, all I could think about was interfaith couples at Passover! How in the world did I make that leap?
The book tells the story of Piggie presenting her friend Gerald, the elephant, with a pot of her slop. Gerald looks at the smelly concoction with trepidation. He asks some questions about the make-up of the slop. Piggie begs him to try some. She explains that itâs part of Pig culture! Gerald touches his tongue to the slop and chokes and gags. Piggie asks Gerald if he likes it. Gerald explains that he does not like it, but he does like Piggie. And he is happy he tried it.
As are all of Mo Willemsâ books, this story is precious and even poignant. It made me think about someone who didnât grow up with, letâs say, gefilte fish, being presented with it for the first time at a Passover seder. This person is no doubt sitting with a significant other at their parentsâ house, surrounded by family and trying to fit in and make a good impression. This person is trying to avoid any cultural faux pas. They may be worried that the haggadah (the book read during the Passover meal) will be read aloud going around the table and that there will be unfamiliar words and transliterated Hebrew to navigate (on four cups of wine, no less). And, now this person is presented with this foreign, kind of smelly food, with a gel-like substance wiggling around on top.
If you were brought up with this food and donât like it, it is easier to dismiss it. But, for a newcomer, how does one politely excuse themselves from trying it? (Especially if is homemade. This usually makes it a lot better than if itâs cold from the jarâalthough some people love that. Who am I to yuck your yum, as my childâs feeding therapist implores.)
What Piggie and Gerald teach us is that we donât have to like our partnerâs cultural things. They donât have to become ours. We donât have to feel comfortable eating the food or donning certain garb. We donât automatically have to feel comfortable with the language, traditions or dances. Maybe after experience and time, we will come to like things. We will make them our own. But, maybe we never will. And, thatâs OK. Showing respect, asking questions, learning about and even trying aspects important to our loved ones is what matters.
Happy prepping for Passover!
I had a very interesting day yesterday.
It started with a phone interview with a graduate student in journalism writing a story about Jewish-Muslim relationships. She had a Jewish parent and a Muslim parent herself, and was involved with a group of young Jewish-Muslim couples. She told me that some of them had decided to raise their children with Judaism and some hadnât decided. I told her that at InterfaithFamily we are always interested in what influences some interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life or not.
She said she thought that Jews were âexclusivistâ and told me that one couple in the group approached a rabbi, I think she said about conversion, and the rabbi made a comment about Arabs and breeding that was so derogatory I donât want to repeat it here. She couldnât see it, but my jaw dropped, it was such an insulting and ignorant comment.
But sadly I shouldnât have been surprised. I immediately thought of a good friend in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Jewish herself but active in her Reform synagogue, who reported last year that a woman at the synagogue said in her presence âwe Jews are dumbing ourselves down by intermarrying.â My friend â herself at the highest level of anyoneâs intelligence scale — was so shocked at how insulting the comment was that she couldnât immediately respond. And then I thought of a survey that a major city federation asked me to analyze a year or two ago in which one couple said that at a Reform synagogue someone who learned they were interfaith said âmaybe people like you would be more comfortableâ at some other synagogue. Itâs hard to believe that these comments are true â yet they keep on happening.
After the phone call I went to a terrific event at the Brown-RISD Hillel co-sponsored by the Genesis Prize, Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel that featured Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky talking about their Jewish journeys. I sat next to a man who asked me what I did and then told me his story. He grew up Orthodox, had a child with his first wife, got divorced, and then married a woman who is not Jewish. His wife doesnât intend to convert but she keeps a strictly kosher home and his grandchildren call her âbubbe.â But after he re-married his synagogue told him he couldnât have an aliyah (recite blessings before and after the Torah is read) any longer, so he left the synagogue.
This morning the Good Morning America team was talking about new variations of the Barbie doll and one of the correspondents said that her young children âdonât see colorâ meaning they donât distinguish other children based on race. Iâm not sure how widespread it is that people see people of other races as ânormal.â I do think that young children see different constellations of parents as ânormal;â I recently asked my 5-year-old grandson if one of âJoeâsâ two mothers wasnât a police officer, and I am quite sure he doesnât think twice about his classmates who have two mothers or two fathers.
All of this made me wonder if Jews will ever see ânon-Jewsâ and Jews marrying ânon-Jewsâ as ânormal.â At InterfaithFamily we try very hard not to use the term ânon-Jewâ which is why I put it in quotes; itâs off-putting and people donât identify as ânon-â anything. We prefer to say âpartners from different faith traditions.â But we keep on hearing people say ânon-Jewâ and itâs very use appears to support viewing the other as not ânormalâ â an Arab who breeds âŚ or ânon-Jewsâ who arenât smart â as well as penalizing Jews who marry them.
The last thing that happened yesterday was hearing Michael Douglas tell his story again. As he said last night, and in a great story in the Jewish Week last week, Michael Douglas was told his whole life that he wasnât Jewish because his mother wasnât Jewish. When the people from the Genesis Prize came to him and said they wanted to award him the Genesis Prize as an outstanding Jew, he said âthis is a mistake, Iâm not Jewish.â But his son has gotten the family interested, and became bar mitzvah, and they traveled to Israel, and the Genesis Prize people very wisely recognized the importance of making a statement that the Jewish community needs to recognize and welcome people who are the children of intermarriage or are intermarried themselves but engaging in Jewish life.
Dare I say that the Genesis Prize being awarded to Michael Douglas is a statement that Jews need to not only recognize and welcome, but normalize intermarriage, the children of intermarriage, Jews who intermarry and most important, the partners from different faith traditions married to Jews? It was a ray of hope to end a very interesting day.
Last month, I sat with 25 people who gathered over breakfast to talk about being part of interfaith families. As the Director of an InterfaithFamily community, there is nothing new or remarkable about that; I bring interfaith couples together regularly to share stories and support one another as they explore religious life. What is noteworthy about this particular group of people is that they were all Jewish professionals, working in Hillels around the country. We were attendees at the Hillel International Global Assembly and this was a first-of-its-kind meeting for people who work in Jewish campus life and are in interfaith relationships. Some of the participants in this discussion were âoutâ about their relationships while others hoped no one from their campus community or staff would know they had attended the meeting. Many others did not feel comfortable attending at all for fear they would be found out, possibly resulting in losing their jobs.
I have written about how oneâs choice of partner does not necessarily reflect oneâs commitment to Jewish life. This is certainly true personally, and I know scores of other Jewish professionals like me who are wholly dedicated to enriching Jewish life in our generation, and are themselves partnered with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds. With an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is clear that Jewish-Jewish couples are about to become a rarer sight than interfaith ones. Many of those who marry someone from another background are active in Jewish life and have every intention of continuing that involvement. Some are so dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that they become Jewish professionals. Yet when they get there, they often feel that they canât bring their whole selves to their work for fear of being labeled bad role models.
I hear the worry that Jewish campus professionals, more than professionals in other Jewish settings, are especially poised to be role models for young Jews at the time in their lives when they are getting serious about dating and marriage. Being intermarried would sanction the decision to marry out of the tradition, the argument goes. But letâs look realistically at the demographics of our current Jewish college students. According to a recent study, âAmong millennials, born between 1981 and 1995,Â âŚÂ partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish, half of all Jews in their generation are children of intermarriageâ [the Brandeis Millennial Children of Intermarriage study, p.5].
This next generation is often trying to figure out how to honor both parents as they explore religious life on campus and chart a way forward. Furthermore, many if not most of them are interdating or have at least explored the idea. The same study shows that the percentage of young adults who think it is important to marry someone Jewish is extremely low for children of in-married parents and even lower for the children ofÂ intermarried parents [Ibid, pg. 43]. Pretending that Jewish college students are largely choosing only to date other Jews is causing us to miss out on some profound conversations. They are not merely deciding on a partner; they are contemplating how they will bring meaning into their lives, they are beginning to own and make decisions as adults for their own spiritual journeys, and they are determining what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
These college students need diverse role models, a plethora of professional exemplars so they can see how an adult makes Jewishly committed decisions when Judaism is not the default. They need models to demonstrate how interfaith families navigate raising kids in a still-conflicted Jewish community, and how couples have healthy conversations with in-laws and grandparents about religious choices. If they do partner with someone Jewish, they will inevitably have extended family members who marry someone outside of Judaism at their family holiday table. They need models and forums to discuss how we can best navigate the increasing diversity in the Jewish community.
We are also missing the whole picture when we think only of undergraduates in the Hillel picture. Many Hillels have vibrant graduate student and young adult communities. Large numbers of these young people arrive on campus already having made their decisions about a life partner, and many of those relationships are with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They also seek support and models as they begin their lives together.
Those of us with religiously diverse families are uniquely situated as Jewish professionals to bring wisdom, knowledge and compassion to interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Drawing on our personal stories and experience, we are poised to model for others how good communication, flexibility and introspection can help strengthen the next generation of seekers. The current generation of inter-partnered Jewish professionals arenât the first âŚ and wonât be the last. Judaismâs greatest leader, Moses, married Tzipporah. Not only was she not a Hebrew; she was the daughter of a Midianite priest. Her father, Jethro, condoned this union and even offered Moses sound advice on leading the Israelites.
Hillel has come a very long way. When I began working for the campus organization, it was made clear that professionals would not be allowed to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony, let alone be partnered with someone from another background. Thank you, Hillel International, for providing the space for such an important conversation when field professionals were brave enough to step forward and express the deep need for community and support. I look forward to the time when all Jewish professionals can bring their whole selves to their workplaces, proud to be exemplars for the Jewish campus community as they dedicate their life and work to strengthening Judaism for the next generation.
Following are brief descriptions of wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples I know (all names have been changed) who were married in recent months:
[* Note that either a rabbi or cantor can officiate a Jewish or interfaith wedding ceremony. InterfaithFamilyâs Jewish clergy referral service refers both rabbis and cantors.]
All of these ceremonies were âinterfaith weddings,â yet they were all very different. And each rabbi and cantor has different comfort levels and boundaries as to what they will do as part of an interfaith wedding.
One rabbi said to me recently: âI officiate at weddings where one partner isnât Jewish, but theyâre really âJewish weddings.â Essentially I do everything the same as I would do for two Jewish partners, with a few minor changes. I never let clergy or relatives from other faith traditions have any role in the ceremony, and I would never include a New Testament reading or any kind or any reference to or ritual from the other partnerâs religious tradition.â
At the other end of the spectrum, another rabbi I was speaking with not long ago said: âI think itâs really important to honor the religious heritages of both partners. I always ask the partner who isnât Jewish if they have a clergy person or other representative from their religion that they want to invite to take part in the ceremony. If not, I encourage them to think about including readings or rituals from their religious tradition that they find meaningful.â
Clearly, these two rabbis are on two ends of the spectrum as to how they understand their roles in officiating interfaith weddingsâand most Jewish clergy fall somewhere in between. Neither of these rabbis is ârightâ or âwrongââbut it can be frustrating and uncomfortable for a couple to meet with a rabbi or cantor who falls toward one end of the spectrum when theyâre really looking for someone who falls toward the other end. Needless to say, this can be uncomfortable for the clergy as well.
So what should a couple do when theyâre searching to find a rabbi or cantor who is the right âfitâ to officiate their wedding?
1. Â First of all, before even reaching out to clergy, the couple needs to have an honest conversation (or, likely, several conversations) about whatâs important to them in their wedding ceremony. How does each partner feel about having Jewish clergy? Assuming that they want to have a Jewish officiant, they should decide: Do we want clergy of another faith to participate as well, and if so in what way? Are there rituals from the religious tradition of the partner who isnât Jewish that they want to include? Are there elements of Judaism (e.g., use of Hebrew, mention of God) that they are not comfortable with? Do they want their ceremony to take place before sundown on a Saturday? (Rabbi Keara Steinâs blog How To Avoid This Wedding Nightmare offers couples good advice on how to have some important conversations.)
2. Â Once the couple has had these conversations, they should begin looking for clergy as soon as possible. If a couple doesnât already have a relationship with a rabbi or cantor, they can go to interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi and fill out a brief form with some basic information, and we will email them a list of rabbis and cantors in their area who officiate at interfaith weddings. Among other questions, the online form asks if the couple plans to have clergy of another faith participate in the serviceâif they do, they will be sent a list including only those Jewish clergy who are comfortable co-officiating weddings.
3. Â Once they have a list of rabbis and cantors, itâs time for the couple to reach out and talk to them. The couple and the rabbi or cantor need to be very clear up front about what their expectations and comfort levels are when deciding if they are going to work together. As I often say when I met with couples (whether both partners are Jewish or theyâre an interfaith couple): âThis is going to be one of the holiest, most special moments of your life. We should ALL be comfortable with the ceremony. If Iâm not OK with something thatâs important to you, I want to help you find a rabbi or cantor that is totally comfortable with what you want. And if you donât feel like Iâm the right âfitâ for you, it doesnât mean that Iâm not a good rabbi or you should feel badly not working with me, but you should find someone who feels right for you.â
The couple should be very clear with the rabbi or cantor about what theyâre expecting their wedding ceremony to look like. They should also feel free to ask any questions (after all, for most people this is their first time having a wedding, so they shouldnât feel like they need to be an âexpertâ), and to be honest if there are some things theyâre not yet sure about. Similarly, the rabbi or cantor should be clear about what they are and are not comfortable with.
Hopefully, when all is said and done, the couple will be very excited about the person they choose to officiate their wedding. Ideally, it will be just the beginning of a relationship that continues not only through the wedding, but for many years into the future.
InterfaithFamily lost a very dear friend, and the broader Jewish world an outstanding leader, when Arthur Obermayer died yesterday.
Iâm not sure what Arthur is best known for in the Jewish world. It could be the Obermayer German-Jewish History Awards, given annually to several Germans (not Jewish themselves) to recognize their efforts to preserve Jewish history and culture in Germany. It could be for his role as a co-founder of Meretz USA, an organization that supported the Meretz party in Israel, or his involvement with JewishGen.
Arthur was deeply involved in secular causes, too. In 2006 I asked him what Boards of Directors he served on and got a list of ten, including the Boston NPR affiliate, the MIT Museum, and Social Venture Partners Boston.
What I am sure of is the impact Arthur had on InterfaithFamily. When I started IFF, I needed to recruit a Board of Directors who were in a position to help the organization get started and grow. I had known Arthur from our involvement in our synagogue, and at some point learned that he was deeply interested in engaging interfaith families in Jewish life, so I asked him to join our Board right when we started operations in 2002. Iâm so glad I did.
Arthurâs biggest impact on IFF may have been with our social media and Internet strategies, which resulted in 2015 in reaching over 1 million unique visitors. Way back in 2004, Arthur spent a lot of time helping us select a vendor for our first website re-design, and he helped again in 2008. He started nudging us to get involved in social networking back in 2008 and often forwarded articles he thought would be helpful.
Arthur was the kind of Board member any non-profit would want to have. He read my (often lengthy) Board updates and reports carefully and often offered thoughtful suggestions. When his high standards were satisfied, he said so; when he congratulated us on one email newsletter graphic re-design, we knew we had done something well. In 2005 Arthur and his wonderful wife Judy, herself a past Board Chair of Bostonâs Jewish Vocational Service and Board member of Bend the Arc, graciously hosted the first parlor meeting IFF ever had.
Arthur was very ill when we had our #ChooseLove Celebration in October, but he called to ask when I would be speaking because if he could make it, he wanted to come and hear what I had to say. He came at just the right time, and Iâm glad I had the chance to publicly thank him not only for making the effort to be there, but for all he had done for IFF and for me. Â He called the next day and left a voice message, which I treasure, saying my work with IFF had been effective to address an issue I really cared about, and that he was proud to know me as a friend.
Arthur and Judy sent a one page, two-sided holiday message every year, and it was one I always looked forward to. I realize now it was because of the balance in each annual report. There was always a part about what Arthur and Judy had been doing with the many organizations they were involved with, there was always a part about the interesting travel and things they had done together, and there was always a proud part about their children and grandchildrenâs latest accomplishments.
Earlier this year we had lunch. I was in the midst of my own transition and I wanted his advice on what I should focus on, on what was really important. This incredibly accomplished man, gravely ill, said âwell, you do what you can to make the world better.â The thoughtful and considerate and helpful way Arthur Obermayer conducted himself, the positive impact he had on so many causes, and the balance he always seemed to have with his personal and family life â all are an inspiration to me that I will always remember.
Theodore Sasson and his colleagues at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis released this week an important new study, Millennial Children of Intermarriage, funded by the Alan B. Slifka Foundation.
The study reports that millennial children of intermarriage â born between 1981 and 1995 â are less likely than children of inmarriage to have had a range of Jewish experiences in childhood; as a result, they are less likely to engage in Jewish experiences (Birthright, Hillel, etc.) in college; and currently they are less likely to exhibit Jewish behaviors and attitudes as young adults.
The study reports that for the most part, the fact that their parents are intermarried does not have direct impact on their current behaviors and attitudes â but Jewish experiences in childhood do: If their parents expose them to Jewish experiences in childhood, then they are much more comparable to the children of intermarriage. This confirms previous research by Len Saxe that Jewish education, not parental intermarriage, is the key determinant of later Jewish engagement. Itâs something weâve also been saying for years in response to the studies that have found low Jewish engagement among interfaith families; if Jewishly-engaged interfaith families werenât lumped in with all interfaith families, but evaluated separately, they would look much more like inmarried families, which makes the important policy question how to get interfaith families Jewishly engaged.
The main focus of the study is to show the positive impact of participation in Jewish activities in collegeÂ on children of intermarriage.Â Indeed, college Jewish experiences âfor the most part were more influential for children of intermarriage, nearly closing the gap on many measures of Jewish engagement.â We wholeheartedly support efforts to increase participation in Birthright, Hillel and other Jewish groups and experiences for children of intermarriage in college. This appears to be the trend. Since 1999, 300,000 North American young adults have gone on Birthright trips, of whom 75,000 are children of intermarriage; the percentage has increased from 20% in the early years to over 30% recently. Children of intermarriage are still underrepresented — half of all Millennial Jews are children of intermarriage, partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish. Weâd like to see many more of them participate.
Some of the interesting statistical comparisons from the study are:
The study includes important observations about the Christian experiences of children of intermarriage. The main point made is that Christian experiences in childhood were not indicators of participation in Jewish college activities. With respect to celebrating Christmas or Easter, âHome observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriageâ â another point we have been making for over the years with our annual December Holidays and Passover/Easter surveys. They recall holiday celebrations as âdesacralizedâ â family events without religious content, special as occasions for the gathering of extended family. âSome indicated that celebration of major Christian holidays felt much more like an American tradition than tied to religion.â
Another important observation concerns how children of intermarriage react when their Jewish identify and authenticity is questioned. The study reports that children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish reject the idea that their Jewish identity is diluted or inferior and view their multicultural background as enriching, enabling an appreciation of diverse cultures and practices. âIn interviews, children of intermarriage described being offended by reference to matrilineal heritage as necessary for Jewish identity. In many cases it was peers with two Jewish parents who challenged them. Even some with a Jewish mother reacted to this as an exclusionary boundary that has little to do with their experience of Jewish identity and living.â Interestingly, 40% of children of inmarriage described themselves as multicultural, compared to 52% of children of intermarriage.
Still another important observation is that for children of intermarriage, being very close to Jewish grandparents had a positive impact on many Jewish attitudes and behaviors in young adulthood. However, children of intermarriage by definition can have only one set of Jewish grandparents and as a result were less likely to have had a close relationship to Jewish grandparents; this was especially the case where their father was Jewish.
Finally, the study reports that Jewish experiences in childhood matter a great deal, and college experiences, especially Birthright, have a large impact on thinking it is important to raise children as Jews. In interviews, few children of intermarriage seemed to view being Jewish as a critical characteristic for their future spouse; the see themselves as proof that inmarriage is not a necessary ingredient for having a Jewish home or raising children as Jews. Many expressed a commitment to raising future children Jewish, or in some instance with exposure to Jewish traditions, regardless of whether they married someone who is Jewish. They often discussed the importance of giving children multicultural experiences and to sharing in cultural/religious tradition of their spouse.
The study includes a set of policy implications that for the most part emphasize the importance of increasing the exposure of children of intermarriage to Jewish college experiences. They also note that Jewish grandparents should be viewed as a critical resource, and programs should be designed to leverage their influence; that attention should be paid to providing alternative forms of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah; and that initiatives should reflect the sensibilities of contemporary children of intermarriage who view their mixed heritage as an asset and react negatively to ethnocentrism. âJewish organizations can continue to adopt different approaches on patrilineality, but all Jewish organizations can encourage awareness of the strong feelings of Jewish identity and authenticity felt by many individuals who claim Jewish status by paternity alone.â We agree completely with all of these suggestions.
We believe that one key policy implication of the study fully supports InterfaithFamilyâs work in particular with our InterfaithFamily/Your Community model providing services and programs in local communities. The study stresses that âreaching more intermarried families with formal and informal educational opportunities for their children should be a priority. Such experiences launch children on a pathway to Jewish involvement in college and beyond.â Our services and programs are designed to foster a process starting with helping couples find Jewish clergy officiants for their life cycle events, offering workshops for new couples and new parents on how to make decisions about religious traditions and then offering educational programs for parents on raising young children with Judaism in interfaith families, among other things. While this is happening, the Directors of the InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects, who are rabbis, are building relationships with couples and recommending that they get involved with synagogues and other Jewish groups. If this process works â and our efforts at program evaluation are starting to show that it does â by the time the children of interfaith families are ready for formal and informal education, their parents will be much more likely to choose Jewish education for them.
For reasons not clear to us, the study questions whether it is possible to dramatically alter the status quo regarding the childhood religious socialization of children of intermarriage. At InterfaithFamily, we are committed to working toward that end.
Itâs 1972. An off-duty, dark haired young cabbie drives by a young blond woman. Slowing down and noticing that the woman is attractive, he switches his light to âon dutyâ and backs up to pick her up. He drops her off at the school where she teaches, then watches as she walks in. Flash forward to the end of the school day and as the teacher leaves school, the cabbieâs there waiting to pick her up. A montage unfolds: The good looking couple walking over a bridge in New Yorkâs Central Park with their arms around each other; him playfully chasing her; the two of them kissing in the back of the cab; kissing more by the bridge. And then, they finally speak:
Woman: âYou know, this is crazy. I donât even know your full name.â
Man: âBernieâŚ.Steinberg. Whatâs yours?â
Woman: âBridgetâŚ.Bridget â Theresa â Mary â Helene â Fitzgerald.â
Then they both say at the same time: âI think we have a problem.â
So opened the pilot episode of Bridget Loves Bernie (you can CLICK HERE to see it yourself), about the interfaith marriage of Irish Catholic Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) and Jewish Bernie (played by David Birney).
Bridget Loves Bernie had a primetime Saturday night slot between two very popular shows and it was the fifth highest rated TV show of the 1972-1973 season. But it was cancelled by CBS executives in response to hate mail from viewers who opposed its portrayal of the coupleâs interfaith marriage. To this day, Bridget Loves Bernie is the highest rated TV show to be cancelled after only one season.
I was a young girl when Bridget Loves Bernie was on TV, but I still remember the show. And I remember the atmosphere in which it aired, at least in the Jewish communityâand certainly in the tight-knit Conservative synagogue where I grew up. It was a shonda (a shame, a pity) if you were Jewish and you married someone from another faith. People assumed you didnât care about Judaism. When you âmarried outâ you were seen as âwriting offâ your Judaism. I heard stories of parents who âsat shivaâ (performed the Jewish mourning rituals) for a child who âmarried out.â The parents wondered what they had done wrong. The married children usually cut off ties with the synagogue and the Jewish community. (Can you blame them?)
To a large extent, things have changed. The days when I grew up, when Bridget Loves Bernieâs interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television, are fadingâat least in a large segment of the liberal Jewish community. In todayâs worldâa world in which, according to the 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews, 71 percent of liberal Jews who are getting married are marrying someone who isnât Jewishâitâs not a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice). And now, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Collegeâs recent decision to allow inter-partnered candidates apply to the school, it may become less of a big deal when Bridget loves RABBI Bernie or Bernice.
If you identify as a liberal (non-Orthodox) Jew you almost certainly have friends, and most likely family members, who are in interfaith relationships. If you belong to a Conservative, Humanist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal or unaffiliated synagogue, you almost certainly know fellow-congregants who are in interfaith marriages. And you probably know parents who arenât Jewish who are actively involved in the Jewish education and upbringing of their children.
Today, there are lots of real couples like Bridget and Bernie, each with their own unique stories, and we canât just âcancel the showâ and ignore reality. (For years, the Jewish communityâs response to intermarriage was to preach against it.Â Not only did intermarriage rates continue to rise, but people in interfaith relationships often felt alienation from and resentment toward the Jewish community.)
If Bridget and Bernie were real people living today, InterfaithFamily, and many like-minded people in the Jewish world, would see Bernieâs marriage to Bridget not as a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather as an opportunity. Weâd want to celebrate Bridget and Bernieâs marriage (they could even use our free clergy referral service to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate at their wedding), to provide Jewish resources and support and a safe, non-judgmental space to explore the role of religion in their lives and their marriage. If Bridget and Bernie decided to move to Philadelphia (or one of the other cities that has an InterfaithFamily/Your Community office) they could take our âLove and Religionâ workshop and meet with other interfaith couples to discuss how to have religious traditions in their lives together. When they had kids, they could take our online âRaising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Familyâ class to consider âhowâ and âwhyâ to bring Jewish traditions into their lives.
Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for InterfaithFamily, âprimetimeâ is the month of November, when we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. This is a time for synagogues and Jewish organizations to publicly acknowledge and thank those members of our community who arenât Jewish; to let them know that we donât just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. Itâs a time to let those Jews who have partners who arenât Jewish know that not only are we not âsitting shivaâ for them, but we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we donât see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. Itâs a time to declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish communityâand we welcome anyone who wants to join us.
Interfaith Family Month is a time to let all of the âBerniesâ out there know that we donât love them any less because they love âBridget.â And for all of the âBridgetsâ out there, we hope that just as you love âBernie,â you will come to love his Jewish community too, because we are committed to building a Jewish community where the two of you can truly feel at home.
In a Forward editorial today, Jane Eisner says we should expect a rabbi to raise his or her children in a Jewish home, to maintain that home as the most sacred place in the Jewish eco-system. The fallacy in her argument is her assumption that intermarried rabbis would not do so. People who seek to become rabbis do so precisely because they are deeply committed to ongoing Jewish life â not only for themselves, but also for their communities, as the Reconstructionists realize. There is no reason to believe that intermarried rabbis would be any different; indeed, given the challenging process to become and then serve as a rabbi, it is absurd to do so.
When Eisner says we should expect a rabbi to partner with another Jew â thatâs the tribalism that the Reconstructionists report alienates many younger progressive Jews and current or would be rabbinical students. If the goal is Jewish commitment to the home, synagogue and beyond, and if interfaith couples can demonstrate that commitment â as more and more do â then why is it necessary for Jews to partner with other Jews, beyond the assertion that âJews should marry Jewsâ or worse, that âJews are better.â
Interfaith couples resolve the âinherent complicationsâ Eisner cites all the time, in ways that are conducive to ongoing Jewish engagement. There is no reason to think that intermarried rabbis would not do the same; in fact, there is more reason to think that they would. And because non-Orthodox Jewish communities are so heavily intermarried, intermarried rabbis would be excellent role models for those communities.
Iâm glad to see Eisner say that âIt is a propitious time to offer bold ideas to make Judaism more accessible and welcoming, to strengthen commitment among those born Jews and encourage others to join.â The Reconstructionistsâ decision is precisely such a bold decision. Over the years I have talked with many would-be rabbis who lamented that because they were intermarried they could not attend any major seminary. I predict that being the first, the Reconstructionists will benefit from many excellent applicants and students.
Todayâs Statement on Jewish Vitality, advocating strategic responses to respond to the challenges of the Jewish future, is extremely disheartening for what it says and what it doesnât say about interfaith families.
Twenty-five years after continuity efforts began, it is still the case that most of our Jewish thought leaders, exemplified by those who signed on to the Statement, still think that intermarriage is bad, still think that conversion is the âanswerâ to the intermarriage âproblem,â and still oppose programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families.
The Statement says that many children of non-Orthodox Jews will not identify as Jewish when they grow up âowing to intermarriage,â even though the Pew Report found increasing numbers of children of intermarried parents identifying as Jews and even though âowing toâ sounds a lot like saying that intermarriage causes children to not be raised as Jews but all of the surveys show correlation at best and not causation.
The Statement touts Jewish education programs, PJ Library, camps, trips to Israel, youth groups, etc. because they raise the in-marriage rate, instead of because they are critically important for and successful at strengthening Jewish engagement.
Yes, the Statement acknowledges that large numbers of Jews will intermarry, but immediately says âwe must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversionâ and advocates for more conversion-oriented courses.
If Jewish leaders wanted to drive away from Jewish engagement the 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who intermarried since 2000, and the majority of college-age Jews who have one Jewish parent, they couldnât do so more effectively than by espousing the response to intermarriage expressed in the Statement. Interfaith couples do not want to participate in a community that describes their relationships as something to be prevented, let alone tells one partner that theyâre welcome if they convert but not as they are.
This fundamental distaste for intermarriage is manifested by the complete absence of any support in the Statement for programs that are targeted expressly at recruiting, attracting and embracing interfaith families. Sure, itâs OK with these leaders if the children of intermarried parents participate in their immersive programs â but G-d forbid that the community do anything that explicitly states, and demonstrates with programmatic responses, that Jews want interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
All of the programmatic steps outlined in the Statement are important and should be supported. But if they are marketed as leading to in-marriage and conversion, and if they are not accompanied by programs for interfaith families, they will amount to just circling the wagons around a continuing diminishing group.
Fortunately, there are other Jewish thought leaders who recognize the importance of efforts to engage interfaith families. Iâm thinking of the Genesis Prize Fund which boldly chose to honor Michael Douglas, and now in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network is offering a matching grant initiative âto encourage the creation of a culture of welcoming and acceptance within the Jewish community of intermarried couples, their families, and individuals who come from these families [and] to energize and strengthen organizations working in this field and to encourage the creation of new programs in that area.â
Iâm thinking of federations and family foundations and community foundations in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington DC who provide support for InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects in each of those cities, where a full-time rabbi and a project manager build trusted advisor relationships with interfaith couples and families (including by helping them find officiants for life cycle events) and offer a range of Jewish learning and community building experiences for young couples seeking help deciding what to do about religious traditions in their lives and young interfaith families seeking help raising their children with Judaism.
It would have been so smart for the signatories of the Statement to eliminate their anti-intermarriage tone and to include programs for interfaith families among their list of efforts deserving support. I long for the day when the more enlightened view becomes predominant. Because if Jews and Jewish leaders canât overcome fundamental deep-seated antipathy toward intermarriage, weâre going to see not vitality, but decline.
The Reconstructionist movement has once again led the way to a more inclusive Judaism by taking the bold step to accept and graduate rabbinic students who are intermarried or in committed relationships with partners who are not Jewish.
The main argument advanced against ordaining intermarried rabbis is that rabbis should serve as role models for Jewish life and commitment. The Reconstructionist movement reaffirmed that âall rabbinical candidates must model commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal, and family livesâ â but explained their decision in large part because âJews with non-Jewish partners demonstrat[e] these commitments every day in many Jewish communities.â
We send our very hearty congratulations to the Reconstructionist movement for their courageous leadership. For years we have heard from people eager to become rabbis who were barred by the major seminaries from applying. A prediction: the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College will be attracting and graduating some very outstanding rabbis â with partners from different faith traditions â in the future, and those rabbis in turn will lead the way to a more inclusive Judaism.