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I was asked the other day what challenges I anticipate as InterfaithFamily moves forward with our objectives. As the great baseball player Mike Lowell quoted his father saying, “There are many injustices out there. It is what one does with that injustice that will shape a person into the character that he will become.”
Our mission at IntefaithFamily is to “support interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and to encourage Jewish communities to welcome them.” Sounds pretty good to me. So what could be the challenge?
Sticking with baseball shaping character, let us liken the game of baseball to religion. It is a joyous and meaningful game indeed, filled with thrills and sorrows, wins and losses, struggles to overcome, questionable calls (look out for obstructions) and blessings and prayers (and come to think of it, there is even a God Bless America thrown in sometimes toward the end). But let’s play out this metaphor. Where is the challenge that I anticipate?
If religion is the game of baseball and every team is a religion, who gets to play? Who wants to play? Who “deserves” to play? Who “needs” to play? Who watches the game and who is participating? Were you born to play or did you fall in love with the game?
I had the privilege of seeing the movie 42, The Jackie Robinson Story, a few months ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. It is hard to imagine that professional sports were segregated for so long and it wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the “colored barrier.” The movie does not hold back in depicting how many players, EVEN ON HIS SAME TEAM were unaccepting and prejudiced at first. Some resented Jackie for making a sport into “a political situation.”
One thing that becomes clear is that Jackie just wanted to play baseball. The world had things so very upside down back then. It was revolutionary at the time for an African American to play with whites on the same field. (And just as heartbreaking to see a world filled with segregated seating in the stands—but it was one battle at a time back then). Jackie had courage and valor that we all admire, and the kind of determination one needs to overcome the prejudice of the old world. There was an unaccepting nature of how things were that constantly challenged him.
I am lucky, for interfaith work is not new at all. There are many great leaders before us that started this work and I am lucky to be part of the growing conversation. Boston itself is often at the forefront of innovation and acceptance of interfaith relationships and has offered great interfaith programming for years.
The majority of people do not like to “make waves.” It takes courage to stand up for something that you believe in, even if it is unpopular at the time. Bringing it back to interfaith families, here is the kicker: There are more intermarried Jews than non-intermarried Jews. The obstacle is people who hold back and are so set in the “old ways,” that they fail to notice our own Jackie Robinson has joined our team.
It is intermarried couples who want to play ball. Jewish communities are enriched by diversity and a multitude of expressions and practices. Interfaith relationships are an opportunity not a threat to Jewish continuity. Collaboration with others is essential to the work that we do and open communication and education lead to understanding.
I hope that when times get tough and I meet those unwilling to see how Judaism is evolving and growing to be more inclusive and welcoming, that I will always remember good old number 42: Jackie Robinson, a hero to us all. The game has only gotten better and better and it is my prayer that everyone is ready to “play ball.”
This first blog for InterfaithFamily/Boston is about doors opening and lives filled with new beginnings because we welcome each other. There was a time not long ago when almost all doors were shut on intermarried couples. As you can see in this photo, there is a picture of a door. This is not just any door. It’s not a stock photo either, but the actual door to my actual office in Newton, MA. I wanted to begin my blog by showing you the door to my office. It’s open and I guarantee you that it will remain open 95 percent of the time. And on the rare occasion that it might be closed, it is still a glass door, where one can easily knock and see and be seen.
Of course you are probably not surprised that this is not a stock photo as it’s not a fancy picture and it’s not a fancy office for that matter (not that there is anything wrong with it. It’s a lovely office. I am very happy to be here). The reason I put this photo in is not so much for the door itself but rather for the sign that our COO Heather made for me, which greeted me on my first day as director of our newest Your Community, InterfaithFamily/Boston last week, “Welcome Josh.”
I smiled when I arrived. This is exactly what the staff of IFF does: We welcome people. I’m lucky to be located within the InterfaithFamily Headquarters, and to be joining the national staff to bring InterfaithFamily/Boston to the community in which they have made their home. This organization has a very clear purpose and a very important mitzvah that has been role modeled since the days when father Abraham (really the first Jew by choice) ran to welcome three strangers (that turned out to be angels) and did all he could to help make his guests feel more comfortable. Abe washed their feet and ran around being the host with the most, checking in with Sarah, who was making dinner and getting in on the hospitable action. It was a family affair indeed. Everyone took part. It’s a big deal in Judaism (and many cultures) when guests come to your door.
And it’s funny, because not that much has changed when you think about what makes a good host (or a good guest for that matter). It is all about appreciation. Let me take it up a notch. We are actually acknowledging that there is a holiness in each other by wanting to help the other. For what is holiness when you get right down to it? Holiness is something special, something apart from the ordinary, something…sacred. You do not need to put on a robe or wave around an object or build an ark to get in touch with what is sacred. There is a beauty inside us that is the best of us, and it is in everyone. It is not even hard to find. You are important. You are loved. You count. You matter. And your family matters. Everyone should feel included. The alternative is to be well…left out, a stranger in a strange land. No, no, no…that will not do. We know what that is like. We remember. We have been taught for thousands of years to welcome people, to help people and be grateful for what we have and to share with others. It is what we do. It is the love of life that makes Judaism so special.
If you are from a religion or culture that has some clear differences of background and ritual from your significant other, that can cause some challenges. We know it and we see it. It’s not easy to be intermarried sometimes. I myself am intermarried and have been a Jewish educator for 13 years. There are questions to be answered and it can be overwhelming trying to please family members and adhere to the demands of a tribe that constantly asks, “What will the others think?” Much more to come on that topic and how we deal with that question in future blog posts.
But in the meantime, if you live in the Boston area, and are exploring what it means to be in a family of interfaith, I invite you to come visit me or call me or send me an email. In fact, part of my job includes leaving my office and meeting you wherever you are. (How cool is that!?) This is both metaphoric and for convenience. Where you are at, I will come to you. It’s my job so please don’t be shy. My door is open. I believe that there will come a day when many more doors will be open as will hearts and minds. And it all starts here. Welcome.
We all know lots of people who won’t compromise. One friend spent so much time compromising that he didn’t realize his partner wasn’t compromising at all. Not only was there no balance in that relationship, there was no respect. Trying to find balance is a constant effort but crucial to the success of any relationship.
I remember when I was engaged and planning our wedding, my family had strong opinions about many things. It felt like we were arguing about everything. A friend gave me the best advice: Pick three things.
This seemed too easy.
I could easily pick the three things I cared about: the music, the city and my dress. My fiancé picked the three things that were important to him: the venue, the food and the hotel. Then the parents got to pick. Suddenly, the agony of negotiation dissipated. The pains in my neck began to subside (literally) and everyone got along wonderfully.
I have found that this advice can be applied to so many things. When making decisions with a partner, there are a variety of aspects to the decision. Take any hot topic and divide it into sections. The great thing about having a piece of a decision in your control is that you are in control of something. For many people, it is the lack of control that brings out frustration and even anger. And leaving pieces of the decision in other people’s hands means that you aren’t acting like a “control freak” and that you are respecting the desires and needs of others.
For example, when you and your partner are looking to buy a house, instead of debating about a specific house, one of you can pick the general location and the other can pick the style of house. If the decision making process gets too contentious, you and your partner should switch priorities. You may find that when you switch roles, the stress disappears.
When searching to buy our home where would be raising our kids, my husband and I debated about schools and school districts. We realized that finding a synagogue to join with a religious school we liked was also a part of the equation. After a while when we still couldn’t reach an agreement on where we wanted to live, we switched priorities. Quickly, we resolved the issue. As long each of us had control over some aspect of the decision process, we ultimately came up with a plan that made us both happy. We both felt that we had input and we were able to respect the other’s wishes. And now for 8 years we’ve been living in a house and an area that we love!
Do you have a technique that helps you negotiate life’s decisions? Tell us about it!
Jewish educators (including me) are constantly writing about interfaith families—how to engage them, what their challenges are, what this means for the current state and future of Judaism. I thought an interesting way into the conversation would be to record quotes I have heard this week. These quotes are taken from different people and were said in different venues—from adult education, to talking with parents and grandparents on the phone or in person, to capturing what my own child said during bedtime. These comments capture the range of the concerns people have. Some of them go to the heart of the work we do, and others bring up policy and programmatic challenges.
What would your answers be to these questions or what would your follow-up questions be to these statements?
Things people have said to me this week:
“One of the big issues grandparents face when grandchildren aren’t being raised Jewish is our own guilt.”
“I don’t want to have to pass a litmus test to get a Jewish education for my children.”
“If God is in my heart, when does God come out? Does God sleep?” (From my four year old)
“We are so busy during the week that we don’t want to be away more from our child on Sunday mornings for drop-off religious school.”
“I want to drop off my child on Sundays and go get a coffee and read The New York Times.”
“The only way our priest would marry us was if we also had a rabbi and if we promised to pass on Judaism.”
“I am very concerned about burial issues that will come up for all of these interfaith couples who aren’t thinking about that yet.”
Twitter challenge for October: Tweet comments you hear other people say about life as an interfaith couple or family, things said at your Jewish programs or by your kids. Your words are the best conversation starters for us at InterfaithFamily! Follow us at @InterfaithFam and tag us in your comments with the hashtag #InterfaithQuotes.
Our Board member, Lydia Kukoff, in Radical Choices: Conversion and Leadership, concludes:
The issue includes many other points of view and is well worth reading!
This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom, written after a recent presentation on Humanistic Judaism to a program of InterfaithFamily/Chicago for soon-to-be or recently married couples. He thought it could be useful both as a basic explanation of Humanistic Judaism and to explain why his denomination is a good fit for many intercultural couples and families. This is cross-posted from his blog.
If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.
For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.
There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).
Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people — read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.
What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life — whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.
This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982.
Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.
You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.
I heard someone say, “I hate the xxxx people. They are so intolerant.” I thought this was a very hypocritical statement and it was very… well, intolerant. You can insert any extremist group for xxxx, but the person seemed to think that they were very progressive and open minded in their thinking. I thought otherwise. I have struggled with this concept for months: I don’t want to be intolerant of people who are themselves intolerant because then I would be a hypocrite.
I try to teach my children to set high standards in order to do their best. Somehow, the implication of trying to attain high standards implies that other people have low standards. Who hasn’t heard the argument, “Well Joey gets to watch TV all day,” followed by, “I‘m not Joey’s parent!” I don’t want to insult or second-guess the judgment of another parent. I try not to criticize other people because, for all I know, maybe Joey doesn’t watch TV all day or his parents are not home when Joey watches TV. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult not to imply that we think we are better than others. However, as a parent, it is important to instill respect and acceptance of others.
For example, during the most recent election, I tried to teach my kids how lucky we are that we can vote for our president without fear. I punctuated the conversation by saying that in some countries, women aren’t allowed to vote. The kids were surprised and asked which countries and why. We have friends of many nationalities and I dodged the question because I didn’t want to create any inadvertent prejudice. My son’s good friend is Muslim and I didn’t want to get into a discussion about religious influence on politics in some countries.
While I don’t want to be a hypocrite, there are times when striving to be the best that we can be may come across as a little condescending. The crux of it is, as long as we are aware of where the line of tolerance is, we are doing the best we can. None of us can be “politically correct” all of the time, but as long as we are trying to be sensitive, that’s a very good first step.
In the Jewish community, there is often scorn or lack of respect toward intermarried couples. We need to embrace the different choices people make (even if we would choose differently) and encourage intermarried Jews to keep a piece of their Jewish identity. As Jews, if we are welcoming to the person of a different faith, they will likely gain additional respect for their spouse’s Jewish identity. Jewish people should treat all individuals regardless of their religion or background with chesed — kindness. We will all sleep a bit better knowing that we have been kind and respectful to others.
The Winter 2012 edition of Contact, the journal of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, is devoted to the question, “What is Identity?” You can read the issue online as a pdf.
The following are excerpts I found to be the most thought-provoking. They offer a snapshot into the issues raised in this publication. I’ve included my responses to each – what do you think?Identity is Strongest When It Leads to Action
The more interesting question concerns how people come to consider their Jewishness as somehow helpfully guiding them as opposed to operating merely as a feature of their background.
As educators, ideally we show people how Judaism can be experienced in everyday life. We demonstrate how Judaism can be lived, how ancient values apply to modern scenarios, and we instill a sense of a Jewish purpose, connectedness and rootedness that guides the decisions we make. How do we do this as educators? We study Talmud, rabbinic stories and midrash to evaluate modern day ethics. We share a Judaism that applies to the transitions in the day, from waking up to eating to work to interacting with our friends, parents and children. And we suggest ways to access Shabbat that will be realistic and doable for modern families. Our “Jewishness” has to be helpful to us in living a life of meaning, purpose, joy and order.What is Specifically Jewish About My Behavior?
The sharp boundaries that traditionally separated Jew and non-Jew have been blurred, and it is more difficult to know what self-identification means. Intermarriage, in particular, adds to the complexity of describing Jewish identity both for the Jewish spouse and for the children of intermarried parents.
Anytime I participated with my religious school in a social justice project, I always followed up by asking the students to describe what we did. The students would explain how cleaning up the park, working at the food pantry, serving dinner at a homeless shelter, etc., was a good deed and helped make the world a better place. They would talk about helping our neighbors and taking care of the earth. They would say that this is part of what it means to be a good person.
I would ask, “What was Jewish about what you did?” They would say that all religions teach these ethics and values; tzedakah (Hebrew, literally meaning “righteousness,” but generally referring to charitable giving) and gemilut chasadim (Hebrew, literally meaning “bestowing kindness”) are the way Judaism describes what to do, but ultimately it’s just about being a good person.
Is this true, that Judaism’s approach to repairing the world is based in universally held principles of kindness and generosity? Yes and no. We may share values, but each religion has specific ways of understanding, talking about and acting on them. Judaism has a language, guidelines and narratives that teach a specific way to approach areas of charity.
When those raised with Judaism grow up knowing the particularities and nuances of their religion, they may see more distinctions in a Jewish way of life. Rather than water down Judaism and Christianity to blend into a sea of universal ideas of being a good person, why not learn and celebrate the specific stories, specific heroes or models of a certain trait, and seek to emulate the profound values of our sacred texts?Jewish Identity is About a Connection to the Jewish People
[The term Jewish identity] carries with it three misleading and ultimately distorting messages:
Cohen, like others in this publication, suggests that when someone has friends who are Jewish, he or she will tend to identity more strongly with Judaism. Affiliating with a community of other Jews is what it means to be Jewish. When someone is “unaffiliated,” we work tirelessly to bring them into the fold of organized Jewish communal life. We don’t care about people’s Jewish beliefs, behaviors or level of literacy nearly as much as whether the person belongs to a community with other Jews.
This is an ostracizing and potentially divisive and hurtful statement to make to people who are not Jewish who have Judaism in their lives and participate in Jewish communities like synagogues. Cohen is essentially saying that it is fine if people who aren’t Jewish raise Jewish children and attend synagogue programs, but the main factor in forming a strong Jewish identity is when children, teens and adults hang with other Jews.
I believe that identity is about feelings. It is about affirmations that one makes about one’s own sense of self and place in the world. Identity is personal, yet it can be expressed and felt in groups. Community is essential for living out Jewish ideals. However, the make-up of today’s Jewish community is more and more diverse. I think these new voices and backgrounds strengthen rather than diminish the group.
This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom.
Who are the “half Jewish?” Or is “half Jewish” like “half pregnant” – either you are, or you are not? For more than two decades, half of marriages involving Jews have been intermarriages. Today on college campuses, there are likely more students with one Jewish parent than with two. Hillels, Judaic Studies programs, and Holocaust memorial observances could be full to overflowing if the Jewish community could learn who these “heirs of intermarriage” really are and how to encourage them to explore the Jewish side of their family heritage.
The problem is that the organized Jewish community has been too slow to face this reality. This goes deeper than a welcoming approach to intermarriage ceremonies, which could start off these intercultural families on a note of welcoming rather than a feeling of rejection. Telling young adults, “I wouldn’t have married your parents” implies there is something wrong about what made them who they are. Too many still see the question of “who is Jewish” as either/or: either your mother is Jewish and thus you are, or you are not (without conversion). What if you want to be, what if you feel, what if you simply are “Jewish and…”?
We all live in many identities. I am Jewish, and a Humanistic Jew, and a rabbi, but I am also male, and a parent, and I grew up in Michigan, and I now live in the Chicago area. All of these identities exist in me simultaneously, and I cannot choose whether I am male or Jewish or Midwestern. An individual with a Jewish parent and an Irish/Italian/Latino/African American/etc. parent is unlikely to choose one or the other identity if it means they must deny, reject, or forget the other “half” of their family. These questions are not simply issues of individual identity; there are real live (and deceased) parents and grandparents and family traditions and heirlooms and memories at stake. There are almost as many varieties of “half Jewish” experiences as there are individuals. Some embrace the term while others reject it, but we all know what it means, even without Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.
This April 20-22, 2012, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism will be exploring this crucial issue at its Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Held on the Northwestern University campus in partnership with Fiedler Hillel of Northwestern University and Newberger Hillel of the University of Chicago, speakers and panelists will explore the “half Jewish” experience through qualitative and quantitative research, personal stories, and passionate debate. Voices from academia, Jewish outreach (including Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago), the arts, Hillel, Birthright Next, and Israel will discover who this population is, in all of its diversity, and how we can speak to them as they are rather than as we imagine or wish them to be.
The truth is that the question of “half Jewish” is really a question of “what does it mean to be Jewish?” I vividly remember a conversation with a Reform rabbi friend who was strongly opposed to the concept of “half Jewish.” He asked, “How can you be two religions at once that believe different things?” I responded, “Can you be half Jewish and half Korean?” And that changed the discussion. While there are some who are raising children as “both religions” (and that experience will be part of the Colloquium discussion), for many heirs of intermarriage, their connection to both sides of their family, Jewish and other, is as culture and heritage more than religious belief and practice.
In this, they are not very different from most other Jews, who do not believe everything they are supposed to believe, do not avoid the foods they are supposed to shun, or do not perform the rituals tradition commands. Large numbers of American Jews connect to Jewish culture, history, and ethnic identity more strongly than to traditional Jewish religion and religious law; they may go to synagogue twice a year, but they feel Jewish all year round because it is who they are. Why should the heirs of intermarriage be any different?
Our hope is that Colloquium 2012 – “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage is the beginning of a wider conversation that will help determine the future of the Jewish community. Will we have the courage to be open and welcoming, the courage to change our expectations for the chance of success, or will we continue the self-inflicted losses of recent Jewish demographics? Will the heirs of intermarriage find Jewish homes, and create Jewish homes with their own families, even if their homes are “Jewish and…”? The choice will be theirs, and ours.More information on the Colloquium, including registration forms, can be found on the IISHJ website.
This is a guest post by Rabbi Evan Moffic on the topic of a new book that examines Jewish identity. It is partially in response to another review, “Jews, Damned Jews, and Sociologists”.
What is Judaism? At first glance, this question seems simplistic. Judaism is, of course, a religion. Yet, what religion has its own language (Hebrew)? What religion has generated hundreds of cookbooks? Well, we might say, Judaism is a culture. Culture, however, is an inherently vague word, and how does one create schools and synagogues around a culture? The truth is that Judaism does not fit into traditional sociological categories. It is a religion, a culture, a philosophy, and much more. Its many dimensions have made Judaism a subject of serious exploration in a variety of scholarly fields, including those centered on identity formation. Scholars and rabbis have sought to address the issue of what establishes and creates Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish?
A recent volume brings together a variety of voices on this question. Edited by three eminent sociologists, and including essays from a variety of disciplines, Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities offers few answers. It does, however, offer some new insights into the contemporary Jewish community. For those of us who work with and in the field of interfaith families, we can take comfort in knowing that scholars better understand that Jewish identity does not fit in fixed categories. Marrying someone who is not Jewish, for example, does not mean a personno longer has a place in the Jewish community. Judaism, rather, has a deeply subjective aspect to it. It is not something externally imposed by a traditional authority. It is a faith, a people, an approach to life that we embrace, and through which we can find both personal meaning and vibrant community.
This view is not without opposition. Those who study the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as differences between Jewish life in America and in Israel, have identified the issue of authority as a core tension. Many in the Orthodox community and in Israel identified Judaism as defined within a larger communal framework of authority. For Orthodoxy, that framework is Jewish life. For those in Israel, it is the Jewish national culture.
Those in America, and in non-Orthodox communities around the world, tend to see Judaism as an autonomously chosen way of life. It is something more fluid than fixed. It changes and evolves over time, and we look at differently depending on where we are in the journey of our lives. WE are our own primary authorities.
Both approaches have their dangers. For those in the camp of communal authority, Judaism can easily become frozen. It can appeal to a smaller and smaller subculture of the Jewish world. For those in the individualist camp, Judaism can become so subjective that we lose any sense of boundaries or communal cohesion.
These are questions we address every day. This book helps us understand and appreciate our own story.Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.