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.

Sadness and Hope

It’s been a hard week in Boston. A family member of someone very important to InterfaithFamily was severely injured in the Marathon bombing. I live in Newton a few miles from where the second suspect was ultimately captured and we were on lock down Friday, wondering what we might encounter if we stepped outside.

Unfortunately I also felt a pall settling over the attitudes towards intermarriage of the leaders of the Jewish community. First I felt the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly left out. In eJewishPhilanthropy Jay Ruderman wrote about a major upcoming conference for funders on inclusivity for Jews with disabilities. It made me wonder, will we ever see an announcement like this (paraphrasing Ruderman’s):

The upcoming [Including Interfaith Families] Funding Conference is specifically designed to engage and challenge Jewish funders. We do not want philanthropists to change their funding strategies but we want them to consider being more inclusive with their charitable donations.

Conference attendees will learn:

  • how to include supports, services and opportunities for [interfaith families]
  • how to recognize programs that promote inclusion
  • how to deal with pressure from prominent organizations to fund programs that [exclude].

 

To advance the cause of inclusive philanthropy, the conference partners with major Jewish organizations so they too can bring this message to their funders. Partners include the Jewish Funders Network, Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. Their participation shows the importance attached to full inclusion and their commitment to making it a reality.

Next, IFF’s friend and colleague Idit Klein wrote a truly wonderful piece about the remarkable turnabout in acceptance of LGBT Jews. But again I felt left out and wondering whether Idit’s conclusion will ever apply to interfaith families:

[E]xpanding the circle of stakeholders starts when we locate the particularities of our identity within the larger collective. In doing so, the larger collective begins to see each of its members as part of the “we” — embracing diversity as a unifying element of the Jewish future.

Don’t get me wrong — I am totally in favor of inclusivity for Jews with disabilities and LGBT Jews. But the inclusivity agenda should not be co-opted so as to not apply to interfaith families, and without detracting at all from those other worthy causes engaging interfaith families should not be neglected. Just in terms of numbers, the potential impact of engaging interfaith families Jewishly vastly outweighs any other issue. When will the Jewish Funders Network and the Jewish Federations of North America and individuals with the capacity and will of Jay Ruderman seize that opportunity?

Second, I felt that continuing expressions of negativity about intermarriage seemed to peak this week, and I have to wonder whether the relative neglect of our cause still is tied to these kinds of views. Our Board Chair, Mamie Kanfer Stewart, had a very positive piece in Sh’ma, No Conversion Required, urging Jewish leaders to

[R]eframe the question, “Who is a Jew?” into “Who is part of the Jewish community?” Rather than focusing on Jewish status, we can honor everyone, Jewish or not, who is bringing the riches of Jewish traditions and sensibilities to our lives.

But then came a comment from Harold Berman, who with his wife Gayle Berman has been getting a lot of publicity about their book, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, and has founded an organization to help intermarried families who wish to explore becoming observant Jewish families, which is what happened to the Bermans. Again, don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great if partners who aren’t Jewish decide to convert and become traditionally observant. But Jewish leaders must realize that this is not likely to happen in anything but a marginal fractional of the large intermarried population.

And then came a comment from Rabbi Richard Hirsh, the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly, who questions why the Jewish community should thank parents who are not Jewish for raising their children as Jews, asking whether doing so suggests that there is something “negative, risky or difficult” about someone being raised as a Jew. Rabbi Hirsh explicitly takes great pains to not be insensitive, but with all respect, his question reveals a lack of understanding of the dynamic of interfaith families raising Jewish children. It’s quite simple: people who are giving up passing on their own religious traditions to their children, in favor of raising them as Jews, something the Jewish community needs to have happen if it is to grow and be enriched, deserve expressions of appreciation.

Elsewhere in Sh’ma is perhaps the worst of all, Identity, Intermarriage and the Larger Picture by a Conservative Rabbi, Amitai Adler, who says “intermarriage does the Jewish People no favors” and that “We solved the problem of what to do if one falls in love with a non-Jew a long time ago, by creating the halachot of conversion. There is little reason to think that solution is insufficient.” Rabbi Adler, the outflow of members from the synagogues of your denomination, which most people attribute to a relative lack of welcoming to interfaith couples, suggests otherwise. If you are right that “endogamy… [is] essential to the integrity and continuance of the Jewish People” [emphasis in original] then the future of our people is dim, given the ongoing reality of intermarriage.

In the meantime there is Naomi Schaefer Riley, who continues to get publicity for her book ‘Til Faith Do Us Part, that I’ve blogged about before. Despite the fact that she is herself an intermarried Jew raising Jewish children apparently in a happy marriage, and despite the fact that the survey on which she bases her book had only 44 Jews which she admits is “too small to draw definitive conclusions,” her message in her New York Times op-ed still is that Jewish (and other) intermarriage leads to more divorce and weakened religious affiliation.

I do try to keep my eye on the positive. On April 28 the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is sponsoring a “community conversation” in which we are participating that I hope will lead to increased programming for interfaith families there. On June 19 the UJA Federation of New York is sponsoring a “Touching Lives and Growing Our Community” forum on engaging interfaith families in which we are participating that I hope will have the result. In March I spoke at the Beth El Temple, a leading Conservative synagogue in West Hartford CT, and we are finding increased interest among Conservative rabbis. Our friends at the Jewish Outreach Institute are making progress too.

In the meantime we are steadily advancing our InterfaithFamily/Your Community model and finding increasing willingness from Jewish communal organizations to partner with us in Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Thousands of people are coming to our website every day — almost 5,000 on the day Passover began. We get on average six requests a day to our referral service that helps interfaith couples find rabbis and cantor for their weddings and other life cycle events. There is no doubt in my mind that the future growth and vitality of the liberal Jewish community depends on engaging these very real people in Jewish life, and I hope that those who are making the effort aren’t hearing or aren’t affected by the negative views of some Jewish leaders. I’m certain we would have many more interfaith families engaging Jewishly if we had a truly inclusive culture.

We also are extremely fortunate to have some enlightened funders who have not been swayed by negativity. But like Jay Ruderman, “we need more partners in our efforts.” To paraphrase him again, I ask, when will we see importance attached to full inclusion of interfaith families in Jewish life and community — and commitment from Jewish leaders to making that a reality?

‘Til Faith Do Us Part

Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.

I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:

On the one hand, they must welcome them if they wish to keep up a connection with the believing spouse and his or her children. But they must also provide a strong sense of community and a gracious but confident expression of their own religious worldview. “Regularly engaging nonmember spouses in conversations about the faith is important,” she writes, noting that such engagement, if done with a soft touch, may bring the spouse into the fold. Finally, religious communities must focus more on reaching young adults, giving them a venue where they can engage their religious faith in a new way and meet a “soul mate” who draws them closer to the fold rather than leading them away from it.

I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.

The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:

My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place — and available to be scrutinized?

Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.

I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:

If the idea was to separate the two young people, it didn’t work. Shortly after Ron got to California, he sent Ann a plane ticket. When she arrived, they got married and have remained married to this day. She got a job at the university, took a class in Judaism and, much to my brother’s surprise, converted, although it took her a while to find a rabbi willing to give her the required course of instruction. Just the other day she remarked, “It was a hard club to get into.”

The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:

She just wants prospective interfaith couples to know that it is work, that love doesn’t conquer all, that “a rocky road may lie ahead of them” and that they “need to think in practical terms about their faith differences — how it will affect the way they spend their time, their money, and the way they want to raise their kids.” Her message is that if you don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be a bed of roses, you’ll have a better chance of its not being a bed of thorns.

That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.

Intermarried Rabbis and Intermarriage Attitudes

We’re back from Passover and there was a flurry of commentary about intermarriage in the Jewish media. Last week Benjamin Maron blogged about Rabbinical Students and Intermarriage, picking up on Rebecca Goodman’s February post on Rabbis and Intermarriage. This is all started when Daniel Kirzane, a rabbinic student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the child of intermarried parents, wrote in a debate in Reform Judaism magazine that that seminary should admit students with non-Jewish partners — which it currently does not allow. (This debate has been going on at least since I blogged about it in 2009.)

Benjamin pointed out that a Reform rabbi, Mark Miller, wrote a rather scathing article in the Times of Israel, lamenting Reform Judaism’s supposed “embrace of assimilation.” I want to bring to your attention Aliza Worthington’s very powerful response, also in the Times of Israel, Rigidity is the real threat to Jewish continuity. Worthington tells her personal story of Jewish engagement despite — or perhaps because of — her own intermarriage, the welcome she and her husband received, how she shares Judaism now with her children — and then describes Miller’s response to Kirzane as follows:

You are taking people who have chosen Judaism — chosen it! — and shoving them away. Here is someone [Kirzane] who was born of an intermarriage of faiths, and he not only chose Judaism to follow, to study, but to live and to teach! And you belittle his parents’ love because it somehow makes his Judaism less authentic to you? You deny him his learning and his future livelihood should he fall in love with someone who is not Jewish? You’re worried that a rabbi who marries a gentile is threatening and disgraceful to the Jewish faith? Even though he cherishes Judaism?

I respect your education and career. I admire your devotion to our shared faith. I worry, though, that you have grossly misidentified the real threats to Judaism: Sanctimony, Superiority, and Judgmentalism.

Sadly but not surprisingly, Worthington’s essay attracted vituperative comments which spurred Adin Feder, a high school student at Boston’s Gann Academy — a pluralistic Jewish day school — to write in The Threat of Warrantless Hatred:

…the problem is the absolutism and rigidity of those who write off and bash Jews who intermarry or subscribe to a different religious philosophy. Attacking and disowning a fellow Jew who decided to marry a Catholic isn’t just wrong. It’s also impractical.

In a recent survey I took of my grade at my pluralistic Jewish high school, I found that over half of the grade, 51%, is “open to marrying someone who is not Jewish”. A further 19% said that they “don’t know” if they would be open to it. Only 30% of the grade said that they are not “open to marrying someone who is not Jewish”. Keep in mind that these results are from students at a Jewish school!

Is the peanut gallery that claims to have been invested with the power to define “real Judaism” and therefore insult all other Jews who don’t fit that definition, prepared to repudiate a huge portion of the next generation of American Jews? Perhaps their energy would be better spent appealing to rather than insulting Jews, in order to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.

Sadly, again, Feder’s article attracted more nasty comments — but Worthington had what I hope is the last word: “Thank God for kids like you who are thinking, educated, engaged, open-minded, compassionate, and articulate. You are the future of a strong, healthy Judaism. Thank you.”

The nasty comments are unfortunate but they aren’t really the point. There will always be people at the extreme who see their way as the only way and intermarriage as intolerable — just as there will always be people who are extremely passionate about the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families. But I wonder what this exchange of commentary demonstrates about the attitudes towards intermarriage of the “great middle.”

With the same-sex marriage cases recently before the Supreme Court, there has been much in the secular press, less about the extremely pro and extremely con voices in that debate, but much more about the revolution in attitudes of the “great middle” in favor of marriage equality. Is Feder’s survey — and remember, it’s from a Jewish high school — representative, indicative of a great shift in attitudes among younger Jews which will push negative views like those of Rabbi Miller to an ineffectual extreme? I wonder.

Being Jewish and Being Human

This is a guest post by Jeremy Burton, executive director of Boston’s JCRC. After seeing his tweets about an undead, supernatural interfaith wedding on TV, I challenged him to blog about it. Luckily, he accepted. You can also follow him on twitter, @burtonjm.

After a tumultuous relationship, this week we witnessed one of the most unusual interfaith Jewish marriages, between two Boston werewolves on SyFy’s Being Human. This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on a three-season journey of identity and the story of one of TV’s more proudly Jewish character’s search for happiness (warning: spoiler alerts).

Being Human - wedding

photo via Entertainment Weekly (image credit: BBC America)

Josh Levison began this series (a knockoff of a BBC original of the same title) as a recently turned werewolf who distances himself from his family amidst his struggle to reconcile his new reality with his former life. Filled with loathing over whether he deserves happiness or will only bring harm to those he loves, he has found friendship with a colonial era vampire, Aidan. Together they commit to help each other explore their lingering humanity. They make their home in Boston and Josh works as an orderly at a local hospital (Aidan is a nurse, which allows for easy access to an abundant blood supply).

Much to their surprise, the home they rent happens to have a newbie ghost in residence, Sally, a recently murdered bride-to-be of South Asian descent. Their home comes to serve as a kind of supernatural Moishe House with them as the facilitating in-residence guides to various visiting undead creatures: newbies learning to “live” with their conditions, old-timers engaging in long debates about evolving ethical challenges of traditional occult ways in a modern world (the ethics of live blood donors v. blood banks; are possessions acceptable and under what circumstances?), all while challenging each other to strive for more effort toward achieving an aspirational “normal” life.

Josh’s journey is played out in several relationships, including his on-again off-again rapprochement with his lesbian sister, and his relationship with Nora a doctor at the hospital. One constant throughout the series is that even as Josh struggles with honest relationships with himself and his loved ones, he is deeply connected to his Jewish identity, carefully protecting his Star of David necklace from damage every month before he turns. Plus there’s the occasional Jewish joke, usually in the kitchen.

Nora and Josh deal with pregnancy, miscarriage, breakups, and along the way the accidental turning of Nora who is now a werewolf too. As the relationship deepens, Josh persuades her to take him to meet her family. Nora’s greatest anxiety about this event is made evident when, to his astonishment, she hides his necklace under his clothing so that they don’t discover his Jewish identity. This concern for their judgment is made moot when it becomes clear there was abuse in Nora’s childhood and Josh determines to protect her from an environment that is still not a healthy space for her.

Somewhere along the line these four undead youth find a new family in each other, one filled with love, trust, and unimaginable acts of compassion for each other (when Sally is brought back to corporeal form as a Zombie, Aidan allows her to eat his healing flesh rather than leave her to chow down on humans).

After prolonged second guessing, Josh and Nora become engaged in truly romantic fashion. Initially wanting a well-planned wedding, they move up the date so as to marry before Sally dies a second time (hard to explain but trust me on this). Nora reaches out to Josh’s sister, Emily, who despite their difficulties plans his bachelor party at which, in a moment of life saving urgency, Josh and Aidan are outed as these magical creatures. Josh pleads with Nora for understanding, begging for the kind of acceptance he gave her when she came out, prompting her memorable line: “You’re comparing being a murderer to being gay?”

But when the wedding day arrives, Emily returns, determined to accept and embrace her brother for the totality of his identity, and also to ensure the wedding goes on as planned despite the minor distraction of a battle to the death with an oddly yiddishist survivor of the Andover, MA witch trials; because after all Emily rode the Boston T (subway) for 45 minutes to get to this wedding and how dare they postpone now?

And so we find ourselves in the living room, with a chuppah built by a very WASPy vampire (he was a Minuteman in the Revolution) who got himself an internet ordination for the ceremony, a ghost as maid-of-honor, and this interfaith werewolf couple saying their vows before select human friends and family. As Aidan and Josh appreciate this very normal moment they also recognize the completely unusual circumstances.

In the end (so far), Josh’s journey wasn’t about becoming human again (he tried that and failed). His was a search for his true family — alive and undead — who know his authentic self. In that moment, a wolf under a chuppah, surrounded by love, he is what we all aspire to be, unconditionally true to all aspects of himself and his choices and fully embraced for it by those who count.