Mazel Tov Adam Levine!

Adam Levine is EngagedYesterday I overhead the following conversation between a Jewish mother and her 10-year-old son about the recent engagement of Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine:

Mom: Did you hear that Adam Levine just got engaged to a shiksa?*

Son: He’s Jewish ** and she’s not…that’s a sin. It’s a disgrace to HaShem (God).

Mom: That’s right. I’m so proud of you for knowing that. And since she’s not Jewish, his kids will be goyim.* 

Son:  Really? That’s so awful.

Compare that conversation with the following, which I read just a few hours later on Jewishjournal.com:

Mazel Tov to Adam Levine and his brand-new fiancé, Victoria’s Secret Angel Behati Prinsloo….We wish them well!

Now, I have never met Adam Levine or Behati Prinsloo, and I don’t know much about either of them. But I do know that all too often when interfaith couples get engaged I hear conversations like the one I quoted above between the mother and her son—conversations disparaging the couple and their relationship.

I think that if we in the Jewish community continue to speak like that—to insult people who marry out of the faith by using derogatory terms and referring to their marriage as a sin—then it’s unlikely that they will want to become part of the Jewish community and to raise children that they may have as Jews. Like the Jewish Journal, I would rather wish these couples well. Rather than treating interfaith marriage as a threat, isn’t it better to treat it as an opportunity for the Jewish people to grow, evolve and thrive?

Would I like to see Adam Levine and every other Jewish man out there marry a Jewish woman? Sure I would. But that’s not always the way things work. And the fact is that Adam Levine didn’t ask me who he should marry—nor have any of the Jewish men at whose interfaith wedding ceremonies I have officiated. Instead, they’ve come to me already in love, asking me to officiate at their wedding ceremonies—asking me, in essence, to accept their choices and to be welcoming toward the women with whom they have fallen in love and chosen to spend the rest of their lives. I’m honored to be approached by these couples, and I embrace the opportunity not just to bless their unions but also to teach them about Judaism and to serve as a welcoming representative of the Jewish religion and the Jewish people.

So here’s what I have to say to Adam and Behati, and to all newly engaged interfaith couples:  Mazel Tov on your engagement! I hope that the two of you will be blessed with a long and happy marriage. Adam (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who grew up Jewish): I hope that you will explore your Jewish heritage and incorporate Judaism into your home and into your life in a way that is meaningful for you. Behati (and all of the partners in interfaith couples who did not grow up Jewish): I hope that you will learn about the Jewish heritage of your fiancé, and that you will feel embraced by the Jewish people.

I hope that the two of you will have honest conversations about the role religion plays in your lives, even if it isn’t always easy. And if you have children, I hope that you will seriously explore the option of raising them as Jews. For now, know that we here at InterfaithFamily, and many people in the Jewish community, are happy for you and we would love to welcome both of you into our midst.

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*The terms shiksa (woman who is not Jewish) and goyim (people who are not Jewish) are sometimes, as in the case of this conversation, used by Jews in a pejorative manner.

** After I came home and Googled Adam Levine, I learned that his father and maternal grandfather were Jewish and he considers himself Jewish, but his mother is not Jewish. This means that according to traditional Jewish law, which requires that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish, Adam isn’t Jewish. So while I, as a Reform Jew, accept the idea of patrilineal descent and I recognize him as Jewish, ironically, the woman having the conversation with her son would not even consider Adam to be Jewish if she were aware of his lineage.

Why I Now Officiate at Interfaith Weddings

WeddingWhen I was ordained as a Reform Rabbi in 2000 I was certain that I would never officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies. I felt that as a rabbi, my role was to preside over ceremonies only for Jews. I was fully comfortable welcoming interfaith couples into the congregation where I worked and recognized that this could be beneficial for both the couple and the congregation. I accepted patrilineal descent (meaning that if the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish, their child is recognized as Jewish if he or she is raised as a Jew; in contrast, traditional Jewish law recognizes only matrilineal descent, insisting that the mother be Jewish in order for the child to be considered Jewish) and so I recognized the children of all interfaith marriages as Jewish.

When a couple with one Jewish partner and one partner of another faith tradition would come to me and ask me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, I would say something to the effect of: “No. But I will fully welcome you into my community after your wedding and I hope that you and any children you may have will be active participants.”

For years, I was comfortable with this position—what I now think of as my “No. But…” stance. Over time, however, I came to realize that what many of these couples heard me say was simply the “No,” and not anything that I said after the “But.” While I thought I was being welcoming, I only looked at the situation through my own eyes, rather than from the perspective of the couple that I was, in essence, turning away.

I eventually came to see that the Jewish partner, who was coming to a rabbi and asking for acceptance and for a rabbi to be part of this major event in his or her life, could feel very hurt by my stance—as if he or she was being rejected by me (and by implication by the Jewish community) for having fallen in love with someone who was not Jewish. And for the partner who was from another faith tradition (or perhaps did not feel connected to any tradition), for whom this was sometimes his or her first contact with a member of the Jewish clergy, the first thing they were told was “no.” No matter what came after my “But,” it was often the “no” that resonated most loudly.

Fortunately, I live in an area where there are many wonderful rabbis and cantors who have officiated at interfaith wedding ceremonies for years, so the couples that I turned away were able to find other Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings. To this day, I have remained in touch with some of the couples at whose weddings I had refused to officiate, and I have seen what the power of being welcomed by other rabbis and cantors from the very beginning has meant to them. I only hope that there are not any couples I declined to marry who were so turned off by the perceived rejection that they did not seek out other Jewish clergy to officiate at their wedding, and then did not seek out further involvement in the Jewish community.

For me, there was not any great epiphany that caused me to start officiating at interfaith weddings, but rather it was a slow evolution. My evolution came about as I saw many couples where one partner was not Jewish–and families where one parent was not Jewish–being actively engaged in Jewish life and the Jewish community. It came about as I learned that things are not always “black and white” and that real life is about the “grey” areas–the complicated family dynamics, the fact that someone who practices one religion can fall deeply in love with someone who practices another religion, and so on. This is the complicated, messy–and often beautiful–reality of life. And I decided that rather than view it as a threat, I would view it as an opportunity.

About four years ago, I began for my first time to work with an interfaith couple in preparation for their wedding. I loved working with them and having the opportunity to discuss all of the challenges and blessings of their relationship. I wondered, though, how I would feel as I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with this couple. After all, this would be a new experience for me–something outside of my usual comfort zone that would mean doing something that for years I had professed I would never do. And you know what? Lighting didn’t strike me as I stood under the chuppah!

In fact, when the ceremony was over and I had a chance to reflect on my emotions, I felt great. I had participated in a sacred moment with this couple. I had honored their differences and celebrated their union. And hopefully, on their journey toward marriage, I had exposed them to some of the richness and beauty of Judaism and made them feel TRULY welcome.

In the last few years, I’ve been blessed to work with a number of terrific interfaith couples as they have prepared for their weddings. In each case, I have welcomed the conversations of complex issues of identity and belonging, honoring and sharing, feelings of gain and of loss. I feel that I have grown as a rabbi and a person from my connections with these couples–from embracing the complexity of life and the beauty of their relationships. I hope that they too have grown from our working together, both as individuals and as a couple.

My stance toward interfaith couples is no longer “No. But…” Now it is “Yes. And…” In essence, I now tell couples: “Yes, I will marry you. And I hope that you and your family will feel welcome and become involved in the Jewish community.”

I think that after hearing “Yes” from me, they are a lot more likely to hear what comes after the “And…” I believe with all my heart that if a couple sees the door to Judaism as wide open and welcoming, they are more likely to cross over the threshold. Rather than shut that very first door in the face of an interfaith couple, I now hold it open for them and accompany them as they walk through.

How We’re Alienating Our Youth

As the new managing editor at InterfaithFamily, I want our blog to be a place where our readers can find out about the “interfaith conversation” that’s happening when it happens in the Jewish and secular media. Yesterday, 21-year-old Rachel Cohen wrote an informed piece on The Daily Beast, “Why Jews Should Stop Worrying About Intermarriage,” challenging Jewish communal leaders to essentially, be less offensive. She speaks to the inclusion we at IFF are working toward much more succinctly than I could, and she speaks directly for her generation:

“We want to live in a society where people can and should marry whomever they love. Consequently, we want those partnerships to be welcomed with open arms by our government, and by our communities.”

Cohen is getting clear messages from the Jewish community. But they’re not the ones she wants to hear: We support you, as long as you marry another Jew.

Interfaith marriage is not the problem, as Cohen sees it. Alienating America’s Jewish youth from Jewish communal life is.

Read her whole essay here.

The Invasion of Skokie

In discussing interfaith marriage, language matters. I was reminded of this truth in watching the play Invasion of Skokie. The play pivots on the 1978 Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois. At the time, Skokie had a very high percentage of Holocaust survivor residents. The American Nazi party petitioned the city of Skokie for the right to hold the march there.

When the city granted the motion on the grounds of free speech, the city erupted in tension. Jews were on both sides of the issue. Some strong free speech advocates contended that no matter how heinous and offensive the Nazi message was, the First Amendment guaranteed them the right to march. A larger group, including many survivors, condemned the march and, according to the play, took up arms as a means of defense.

The play revolves around one family in which this tension plays out. The father opposes the march and works with a group arming themselves to fight the Nazis. His daughter supports the rights of the marchers, even as she finds their message horrible. The third character is known as the “Shabbos Goy,playing on an ancient (and to our ears, a very offensive) designation of a non-Jewish person who turns lights and stoves on and off in a Jewish home or synagogue on Sabbath when observant Jews are forbidden from doing so.

Eventually the daughter falls in love with him, and tension begins to play out between the father and daughter. When they ask for his blessing for their marriage, the father says no unless he converts. All of this story is playing against the background of the Nazi march. The fiancé says no to conversion, explaining that he does not share their faith even as he loves their daughter and respects Judaism.

As I led a discussion group after the play, I realized the importance of language in speaking to interfaith couples. Had the father not dismissed the potential marriage or focused immediately on conversion, I think the couple would have responded differently. Their relationship with him would have played out differently. We would have experienced a more honest and open discussion.

That is one of the lessons we teach at InterfaithFamily. When we see the issues of Jewish identity and family in black and white terms; when we think that conversion is the only way to have Judaism in the home, we often close the doors for future Jewish life.

The play brought up many feelings some still hold. If we care about passing on Judaism to the next generation, then we have to listen, accept and love. We fill find that there will be openings for Judaism to live vibrantly for couples and families who have been welcomed and supported.

Genetic Screening: Why you should consider it

Couple with a counselorWhen you fall in love and decide that your partner is going to be the person you want to share your life with, life can seem blissful. If you start thinking about children, the future seems rosy and exciting. Some of you might be aware that the Jewish population may be at risk for certain genetic diseases. When a couple is from two different religious backgrounds, a they may think they are in the clear. A mix of genes from a variety of cultures should lead to a more robust gene pool, they think. Remember we learned in high school that both parents have to carry the gene for the child to be at risk. So an interfaith couple should be unlikely to produce a child with genetic issues, right? Maybe not.

I recently saw a news story that members from the Irish community were having children with Tay Sachs (a genetic disease that can occur with people from eastern European descent). This got me thinking. Do all of us truly know who our great, great, great grandparents were? Is there a chance that our ancestors left Spain in 1492? Is there a chance that one of our ancestors was born to Jewish parents but decided to become another religion to avoid religious persecution? I realized, this entire country was founded upon the basis of freedom of religion! Obviously, throughout the world, the freedom to practice one’s religion has been (and in many places continues to be) at risk. So chances are high that one of our ancestors could have been from a different religion or culture. With such a possibility, it makes sense that we might not truly know our genetic makeup. When I think about it further, anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years. So the chances that an ancestor was Jewish and then converted to another religion to avoid persecution is possibly quite high.

At the Victor center, statistics say that one in four Jews is a carrier for at least one of 19 preventable Jewish genetic diseases. The mission of the Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases is to ensure ongoing access to comprehensive genetic education, counseling services and screenings. This is accomplished through Jewish community education programs and screening programs for healthy individuals at risk for being carriers of a gene mutation for any one of these diseases. The Victor Center recommends that the Jewish partner be tested first. If the Jewish partner has no issues, then there is no need for additional genetic testing.

It is obviously a scary proposition to think about “what if” and what decisions that might need to be made if there is a problem. That is the point of testing. Then you know and can move forward. More important, once you know that you are in the clear, you can stop worrying about genetic diseases. Genetic counselors can explain all the issues, risks and options. Genetic testing is a simple blood test but it can provide peace of mind. With peace of mind, you can start focusing on the other exciting aspects of upcoming parenthood.

If both are carriers, what are the reproductive options?

There are many reproductive options available to carrier couples, including prenatal diagnosis (chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis), pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, gamete donation and adoption. Genetic counseling is recommended to learn more about all of the reproductive options. To speak with the genetic counselor at The Victor Center, please call (215) 456-8722. Additionally, your rabbi or other clergy may be able to provide insight and help in making these decisions.Everyone is different and every couple is different. The point is this: You and your partner should just think about being tested. It is a good discussion to have and there are genetic counselors ready to help no matter what you decide.

Read one couple’s story about coping with genetic disease

A Plea to Ordain Intermarried Rabbis

Ellen Lippman, rabbi of Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, has an important contribution in today’s Forward to the debate about admitting and ordaining as rabbis people in interfaith relationships, an issue we’ve blogged about frequently. In an “open letter” to her alma mater, Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Lippman, who is partnered with a person who is not Jewish, writes,

We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.

Rabbi Lippman argues that an “inclusive vision of Jewish leadership” means that “we should not push away those who want to become leaders of the Jewish community as rabbis just because they are intermarried.” And she argues that:

A rabbi is a role model, and there are many kinds of role models. Intermarriage is a fact of American Jewish life. We can do a better job of connecting intermarried Jews to synagogues, rabbis and Jewish life. One way is to knowingly ordain intermarried rabbis.

It will be fascinating to follow this issue as it is debated at HUC.

What Chelsea Clinton Loves about Judaism

There is a great short podcast on the Jewish United Fund’s website with an interview of Chelsea Clinton, who spoke at the Women’s Division Spring Event 2013. Cindy Sher, the terrific editor of the JUF News, makes a great initial comment: “you became a member of the extended Jewish family when you married your husband Marc, so welcome to the Tribe.” (We had a lot to say about Clinton’s wedding back in August 2010.) She then asks Chelsea “what are a couple of things you love most about Jewish religion or Jewish culture.” Chelsea’s answer highlights how important Marc’s Judaism is to him, and says she loves how “he’s so dedicated to ensuring that we start developing our own Seder traditions for Passover… so he feels like we ironed out all of the crinks before we are blessed to have children.” It will be fascinating to watch this couple’s engagement with Jewish life and community as it develops in the future.

Are Interfaith Families Included in Inclusive Philanthropy?

I wrote a piece for eJewishPhilanthropy that was published today. It’s wonderful to see the attention that Jewish philanthropists are giving to inclusion of Jews with disabilities and LGBT Jews, but I can’t help asking: Are Interfaith Families Included in Inclusive Philanthropy? I hope to get some positive answers!

Being Part of a Community Conversation

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington sponsored Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation on April 28. Ed Case and I attended along with other representatives from fellow interfaith engagement organizations. Clergy and professionals from area organizations shared the work they are doing to welcome and engage interfaith families. Interfaith couples came to discuss their journey of Jewish involvement. Here are three points that I took away:

Language is Still a Challenge: For most of the conference almost every presenter and speaker referred to people who aren’t Jewish who are partnered with a Jew as “non-Jews.” Finally, Kathy Bloomfield, a local Jewish professional, asked them to re-think this term as it can be offensive and hurtful to be described as a “non-anything.” She suggested using the phrase, “person from a different faith,” which speakers immediately adopted, one saying to Kathy “you had real impact!” An alternative I use, given that some people grow up with no specific faith or are not practicing another faith, is to just describe that partner as a “person who is not Jewish.”

It is Important that Couples Be Able to Find Wedding Officiants: One panel included a college student (himself from an interfaith home) who works for Hillel, an interfaith couple, and three rabbis (one Conservative, one Reform and one at a non-denominational synagogue). The college student talked about his work trying to engage students from interfaith homes in Jewish life on campus, the couple told their personal story, and the rabbis discussed how they work to reach out to interfaith couples. However, the conversation ended up centered on rabbinic officiation at weddings. The couple explained how painful and confusing it was when the groom’s brother, a Reform rabbi, did not feel he could officiate at their interfaith wedding.  One rabbi spoke about how when his brother intermarried in the 1960s his father disapproved, resulting in severe damage to  the family’s relationships; in fact he said the first time his brother said something nice about this father was when he gave a eulogy at his funeral. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf from Adas Israel, a major Conservative synagogue, described his new “keruv aliyah.” Keruv, a Hebrew word which means to draw near, is the Conservative movement’s term for reaching out to interfaith couples and families. Aliyah means “going up” and can refer either to moving to Israel or coming to the Torah during worship for an honor. In his keruv aliyah, Rabbi Steinlauf has interfaith couples come up at a Shabbat morning service before their wedding for a blessing. Because Conservative rabbis are not allowed by their association to officiate for interfaith couples, this is a creative, bold and meaningful way to publicly honor in their community the unions of interfaith couples religiously and spiritually.

JCCs Can Be A Meaningful Address for Interfaith Couples: Several Jewish Community Centers in the Washington DC area are thinking creatively about how to engage interfaith couples and families in Jewish life. Many interfaith families do not “affiliate” in the sense that they do not officially join a congregation. There are many reasons for this: Cost, fear/uncertainty about what to expect, apprehension about ever “belonging” fully with a partner who isn’t Jewish, wondering about whether the partner who isn’t Jewish will be able to participate meaningfully in rituals and synagogue communal life, thinking that children will be treated as “less than” if they have a parent who isn’t Jewish, and more. Synagogues need to become cognizant of the concerns these couples could have and be able to address these concerns visibly and clearly so that barriers can come down and all can enter with ease and less anxiety. JCCs may be a comfortable first step to later synagogue membership, or they may be a long-term Jewish organizational home for interfaith couples and families to find community, programs of interest and learning. JCCs in Washington are now offering more ways for families to experience religious learning for children and ways to mark life cycle events. Because Jewish Community Centers can sometimes be more open with more flexible ways to engage, it seems a natural setting for interfaith couples and families to explore.

In the breakout session I led about preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah, one of the participants was a grandparent who said that he would be helped by talking points for grandparents like him to communicate respectfully and informatively to their adult children about why different parts of Jewish life, including bar/bat mitzvah, are important to them. Sometimes we feel things in our hearts but have trouble articulating their importance.

It was inspiring to be part of a communal conversation aimed at hearing what is happening already and which will set the stage to determine next steps and figuring out the most effective ways to reach interfaith couples and families around Washington DC. It was affirming to see interfaith couples and families regarded as precious to the Jewish community, as present and future links to add to the chain of Jewish tradition.

Congratulations Washington

Yesterday Ari Moffic and I had the privilege of participating in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Welcoming Interfaith Families: A Community Conversation with more than one hundred professionals and interested individuals. It was very affirming to hear the top leadership of the Washington Federation – Steve Rakitt, CEO, and Stuart Kurlander, President – express their commitment to engaging interfaith families in Jewish life in the DC Jewish community. Ann Bennett, the Chair of the program, and Marci Harris-Blumenthal, the Federation’s Director of Community & Global Impact, put together a great program. Our friend Marion Usher played a key role helping to design and facilitate the program.

The program started with an interfaith couple telling about their Jewish journey, starting with Marion’s Love and Religion workshop and continuing to membership in Adas Israel, a leading Conservative synagogue. Several organizations gave brief presentations about their programs and resources, including our own InterfaithFamily/Your Community, the DC JCC, 6th & I Historic Synagogue, JOI and its Mother’s Circle program, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, and PJ Library.

Next came breakout sessions on various topics – I attended one Ari Moffic facilitated on preparing for bar/bat mitzvah. It was a great discussion – the mother who started the program said she had recently received the date for her son’s bar mitzvah, I believe four years in advance; not having had a bat mitzvah herself, and with a husband who is not Jewish, she was already wondering how she would include her husband’s family. One participant pointed out the opportunity for parents who had not experienced bar or bat mitzvah to learn along with their child if they wanted to, including learning how to read Torah. We got some great ideas for additional resources to put on our Bar and Bat Mitzvah Resource Page that would help interfaith families prepare, ranging from lists of questions synagogue members should ask their synagogue professionals, to tips for parents thinking about whether or not to have a bar or bat mitzvah.

After a presentation about the play Love, Faith and Other Dirty Words created by the New Center for Arts and Culture, a panel described in Ari’s blog post shared their interfaith experiences. Like Ari, I was struck by how much of the concluding conversation concerned rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples after an interfaith couple told of their difficult experience. It reinforced to me how important it is for communities to make it easy for interfaith couples to find officiating clergy.

All in all it was a great conversation and we are very much looking forward to the next steps the Washington community takes. The Federation is making some of the presentations available on a new page on its website: be sure to check out shalom.dc.org/interfaithresources.