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Thereâs an uproar in Israel because a son of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is dating a Norwegian woman who is not Jewish. Daniel Treiman at JTA reports that some religious Knesset members are voicing dismay at the âbig problemâ of the son of the Prime Minister possibly intermarrying.
Almost every public statement that comes out of Israel about intermarriage equates it with assimilation and loss of Jewish identity and engagement. They just donât get that many interfaith families are engaging in Jewish life.
It would behoove Jewish leaders to extend an embracing welcome to prominent couples who intermarry. We live in a culture crazed with celebrity â if celebrity interfaith couples engage Jewishly, that may increase the interest of others. Thatâs why we urged Jewish leaders to extend a big mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton a few years ago.
Speaking of mazel tov, Liel Liebovitz had it right in Tablet:
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:
The second is an editorial in the Forward. Hereâs my letter to them:
The people in these positions of Jewish leadership ought to stop to think about the impact of what they say about intermarriage on young interfaith couples â the Jewish partner or the partner who isnât Jewish â who are exploring Jewish life, considering making Jewish choices, and quite naturally looking for welcome, acceptance, and embrace.
We were sorry to learn that Jennifer Gorovitz will be stepping down as CEO of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.
Most of the commentary has focused appropriately on the small number of women who have lead federations â Jennifer was the first woman to head a large city Federation in North America â and expressed hope that many more will follow in her footsteps.
Weâre feeling a loss more personal to InterfaithFamily in particular and the field of engaging interfaith families more generally. Jennifer was a leader among Federation leaders in championing the importance of Federations taking action to engage interfaith families. She was instrumental in making funding possible for InterfaithFamily/San Francisco Bay Area, and spoke about the project with us on a panel at the 2012 General Assembly (the Federation systemâs annual conference).
We truly appreciate Jennifer saying in her own statement that she was âparticularly proud of transformative grants to Keshet and InterfaithFamilyâ and describing them as among âthe many inspiring ways that the Federation is building Jewish lives and deepening and broadening its reach.â And she is exactly right in saying that for Jewish Federations and organizations to maintain their relevance and thrive into the future, âwe will all have to embraceâŚ substantive and meaningful engagement of Jews of all ages and backgroundsâŚÂ including interfaith JewsâŚâ
Fortunately IFF has a lot of strong support in the San Francisco Jewish community â and that community has a lot of strong leaders. We wish the Federation well in their search to replace Jennifer and hope they find someone who shares her passion for engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. And we especially wish her well as she builds the next chapter in her life.
All of us at InterfaithFamily are mourning the loss of Edgar Bronfman, who died last night.
As early as 2004, we reprinted an article from the Jerusalem Post whose title conveyed Edgarâs 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. Iâve only been to the Jewish Funders Network annual conference (which isnât 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 âhisâ 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. Edgarâs 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 canât think of anyone of Edgarâs 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 âstem the tide of intermarriageâ message.
No one comparable to Edgar Bronfman was heard delivering his prophetic message, in Hope, Not Fear:
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 Edgarâs family and to the staff of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the non-profit organizations that were closest to his heart.
Jews donât 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 ourselvesâpeople 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 donât know of many people who would want to give this up.
We donât 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 âthe oneââeven 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 âchecklistâ of what theyâre looking for in a partner. One of my friends always said sheâd marry someone blonde, very physically fit andâmost importantâJewish. So when she met a man at work who had dark hair, was chubby and didnât like to work outâand was Methodistâshe wasnât concerned when they started to spend a lot of time together as friends. Sure he was smart, interesting and funnyâbut he wasnât her âtype.â But eventually their connection become deeper and they fell in love. It stopped mattering to her that he wasnât blonde and fit. What mattered was that she loved him. And though she didnât 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 âthe oneâ she loved. Eventually, they got married.
For my friend, âthe oneâ is a Methodist. For Rabbi Michal Woll (who co-wrote the recently published book Mixed-Up Love with her husband Jon Sweeney) âthe oneâ is a Catholic author. For me, âthe oneâ happens to be another rabbi. But just because my friend and Michal married Christian men that doesnât mean that either of them values Judaism less than I do.
Iâve met numerous people who grew up with strong Jewish identities and who care deeply about the future of the Jewish peopleâmany 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 didnât 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 Iâve 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 todayâs world, in most of the liberal Jewish community, having a partner who is not Jewish and living a committed Jewish life arenât seen as necessarily mutually exclusive. As Michal and Jon share in Mixed-Up Love, faith and religion are VERY important to BOTH of them; thatâs 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 donât 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 arenât important to them. Rather than EITHER/OR, perhaps they have chosen to commit to BOTH/AND.
We 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 âambassadorâ 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:
We will be working closely with other Greater Boston interfaith engagement organizations funded by CJP (URJ â 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 â and why â 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.
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 âfighting against intermarriageâ 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 âa potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.â
I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is â there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders â and I think itâs 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 itâs 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 IsraelâŚ people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.â But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbisâ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a âbalcony perspectiveâ 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 âbalcony perspective,â what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldnât help but make this connection when reading the Forwardâs profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader â and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahlâs essay originally in Shâma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to âreaffirm her Jewish legacy.â)
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 Greenbergâs concern with complications for klal yisrael but says
Rabbi Gurevitz then focuses on what I would agree is most important:
The third major story was an excerpt of a âlive discussionâ on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he wonât officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilmanâs perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I donât have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that âinvariably,â in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage âalmost alwaysâ 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 âdiminishmentâ would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpeâs rationale.
Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesnât officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isnât Jewish isnât subject to Jewish law. I canât argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that itâs âbad faithâ for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isnât representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true âat least for meâ 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 â 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. Iâm for wide open gates.
Now back to vacation.
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 arenât 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 âheardâ 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 ânonâ in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying ânot Jewishâ verses ânon-Jew.â 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 âbelong?â
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:
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 âmember.â
Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.
Straddling two worlds, feeling like an outsider, taking on the identity of your family but still retaining your ownâthese 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 âwhat is possible when we can be confidently rooted in our own traditions enough to reach out, embrace, and learn from âthe other.â”
There is a pretty offensive article on the Forward today, Why Intermarriage Poses Threat to Jewish Life â But Gay Marriage Doesnât. Itâs by Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and like most Israeli commentators, he doesnât 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 âuphill climbâ that will âdepend on a huge investmentâ 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 donât get me wrong, Iâm all in favor of including LGBT Jews â and their partners â 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 canât imagine that advocates of Jewish LGBT inclusion would agree with Finkelmanâs 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.