The Jews of Iquitos

We have a constant editorial dilemma chosing articles for InterfaithFamily.com. Converts to Judaism are part of our natural constituency–conversion creates an instant interfaith family, after all–and yet if we feature too many articles by or about conversion, we could make people in interfaith marriages feel pressured to convert. We want to be welcoming to people who choose Judaism, but at the same time we don’t want to proselytize. There are both important cultural and religious reasons for this. Religiously, many believe that proselytizing can invalidate a conversion. Culturally, Jews have a memory of being pressured or coerced to convert to other religions, and so don’t think Jews should do anything remotely like that. In this we’re in pretty much the same boat as the rest of the Jewish community–always struggling to be welcoming without exerting any pressure.

Many people who choose conversion to Judaism do so because they come from families with a Jewish grandparent or earlier ancestor. A recent article about a small Jewish community in Peru captures some of the issues facing both individuals and communities who become cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. The small community in Iquitos, Peru thought of themselves as Jews even when the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Peru wouldn’t recognize them. Descended from 19th century Sephardi merchants, the families had intermarried with local people and they look like them. At the same time, they retained some Jewish practices, beliefs and identity. This has to sound familiar to a lot of my regular readers! Continue reading

Statistics on Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage

Why didn’t I take statistics in graduate school? Who knew that instead of teaching history I’d be working for a non-profit where statistics are vitally important and constantly contested. Take the recent flurry of posts from major bloggers about Jewish and African-American attitudes toward intermarriage.

The bloggers’ exchange kicked off with a light post by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ta-Nehisi Coates suggesting a dating service for matching up African-Americans and Jews. A social scientist who seems to have created his blog for the express purpose of answering the questions that come up in this discussion (no biographical page!) posted to relate relevant data about attitudes of various groups toward interracial marriage according to the General Social Survey. (Here’s the first of the many times reading this that I kicked myself. I have no idea how to evaluate the GSS data, at all.)

Coates responded with a post about how negative Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage with Afrcian-Americans might indicate the end of the Black-Jewish alliance. Then, Ilya Somin, a blogger at the conservative Volokh Conspiracy, weighed in with a post on the role that negative Jewish attitudes toward interfaith marriage might play in attitudes to relatives marrying African-Americans. Somin cracked me up with this:

I suppose I should also mention that I am an ethnic Jew engaged to a gentile, and that I have at various times in the past dated non-Jews who are also non-white. However, my case is just one of many examples of the point I made in the post. Although I am ethnically Jewish, I am not religious, and my engagement will not actually lead to an interfaith marriage because our attitudes towards religion are actually very similar despite the ethnic difference.

Oh yeah, right. People are always telling me that they aren’t really in an interfaith marriage because they aren’t religious, but I generally assume that’s because I’ve buttonholed them in the supermarket and am trying to get them to write for our website. I think the problem is the word “interfaith” which makes it sound like every day of your marriage you sit down in a circle, sing “Kumbaya” and discuss comparative religion. A non-religious ethnic Jew marrying a non-religious gentile still has to make identity decisions when he or she has children. For the Jewish community’s purposes, that’s an interfaith marriage, even if it looks like an inter-no-faith marriage. Continue reading

Rabbinical School and the Interfaith Marriage, Part 2

Last week Ruth Abrams blogged about an important article by Jeremy Gillick in New Voices, The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi, about men and women seeking to attend and be ordained by rabbinical schools that will not accept them because they are intermarried.  Shortly before the New Voices article came out, we published Why I’m Not A Rabbi, in which Edie Mueller explained her experience of this rejection 15 years ago. I’d like to now explain our position on this issue, prompted in part by a parallel discussion that is taking place on the Jewish Outreach Institute‘s JOPLIN listserv. Continue reading

Can You Be for Inmarriage Without Being Against Intermarriage?

Can you be for inmarriage without being against intermarriage? My gut says yes. But explaining it is the tricky part.

When people of different religious backgrounds ask what I do, I tell them I work for a Jewish non-profit that provides resources for interfaith couples with a Jewish partner. “So you encourage Jews to marry Christians?” they inevitably ask. Well, no, I stammer, we don’t promote intermarriage, but if people do intermarry, we’re all for welcoming them and showing them the beauty, joys and community of Judaism. Their eyes are usually glazed over by that point.

Continue reading

Madoff and Intermarriage, Part 2

 Last week, Micah Sachs posted about Jonathan Tobin’s first article as editor of Commentary magazine. In a time of limited resources and funding difficulties facing Jewish non-profits, Tobin is arguing for a “circle the wagons” approach against reaching out to interfaith families. I wanted to share the letter to the editor that I’ve submitted:

Dear Editor,

I take exception to Jonathan Tobin’s comment (The Madoff Scandal and the
Future of American Jewry, February 2009) that “the results of the past two
decades suggest that the outreach model is a failure.” Tobin quotes Gary
Tobin’s estimate that the annual amount of Jewish philanthropic giving is $5
billion.  InterfaithFamily.com tracks all outreach programs that target
interfaith families; the Jewish community spends less than $4 million on
such programs — less than 1/10 of 1% of its total spending. The outreach
model cannot be deemed a failure because it has never been implemented on a
national scale. Continue reading

Inside-Outsiders?

Many progressive Jewish organizations have made great strides in recent years in creating a welcoming environment for intermarried members and visitors, but what of those who work for the organizations themselves? Does the same attitude of welcoming apply to the organization’s intermarried employees?

There is no definitive answer. But the Jewish Outreach Institute is starting an email discussion forum for intermarried workers in the Jewish communal world who want to talk about the issue. It’s a good idea, and a good start. In the Jewish communal world, it seems to me there is a (sometimes not so) subtle peer pressure to prove one’s Jewish bona fides. It can sometimes be easier to let people think you go to synagogue more than you do or not to mention that your partner is Christian. I certainly see this tendency among young adults from interfaith families who are working in the Jewish world; whenever I go to a conference with other Jewish organizational professionals, these impassioned young people seek me out to talk about their background. They don’t hide their past exactly, but they certainly don’t broadcast it.

I hope this small step will help Jewish organizations become more comfortable with the intermarried individuals working for them–and help those intermarried workers become more comfortable with themselves.

Art Imitating Life or Beating us to the Punch!

A question that has always boggled my mind is “How popular must a particular cultural phenomenon be before TV producers choose it for sitcoms?”

TelevisionThe CW’s hit series Gossip Girl recently aired an episode with an interfaith wedding, co-officiated by an Episcopal priest and a rabbi. The Forward ran an article about this episode.

The ceremony even had the traditional Hebrew phrase “Ani L’dodi…” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” from Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible.

It’s one thing to have a Jewish wedding with an interfaith couple. It’s another to see television writers showing a co-officiated wedding with the clear expectation that the audience to get the cultural jokes made out of playing the stereotypes off each other. And, knowing that TV producers aren’t willing to risk airing a joke no one will get, it is clear that they know that co-officiated weddings are at least normalized enough to get people to pay attention to the jokes and not the be distracted by the scene itself. Continue reading

Real, Not Ideal

I wish life was perfect.

I think we can all agree on that! For example, I wish I were size 2, a lottery winner and that all the world’s Celtics lottery tickettroubles were solved. But life is not perfect.

In the November 28 edition of the Jewish Advocate, Rebbetzin Korff, the wife of the the Rebbe of Zvhil-Mezhbizh and a descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of the Hasidic movement, responded to a question in her column ,“Why is Judaism concerned when a Jewish woman marries a non-Jewish man?”

Rebbetzin Korff does a wonderful job of explaining how complicated it can be to raise a Jewishly observant child when one parent is not Jewish. (A sentiment many of our readers can agree with.) Remarkably, in the end, Rebbetzin Korff does concede that is possible to raise a well-educated, Jewishly-oriented and responsible observant child when one parent is not Jewish. She then stresses it is not a Torah ideal.

One could hardly read Rebbetzin Korff’s column as a ringing endorsement of interfaith marriage, nor even a lukewarm one, but I hope she does agree with InterfaithFamily.com’s mission of encouraging families to make Jewish choices. Like Rebbetzin Korff, I agree that interfaith marriages are not always perfect. For that matter, nor are many marriages between Jews. Life is not ideal. After all, I am still not a size 2 or a lottery winner. Based on my morning check on Google News, there is still a lot of trouble in the world.

Every day interfaith families are engaging in Jewish life and we are all enriched by the richness interfaith families bring to the Jewish community. After work today, I am going to the gym and will be buying a lottery ticket.

Breaking New Ground with Jewish Leaders

Last week the United Jewish Communities (UJC) held its annual convention, called the General Assembly (GA). Something different and potentially very significant happened: there was talk about intermarriage, in a positive way.

Adam BronfmanSince I got involved in the professional Jewish world nine years ago, I think I’ve been to every GA except for two that were held in Israel, including last week’s. There are probably more Jewish leaders gathered at the annual GA than at any other time or place.

For many years I have lobbied the UJC, usually  unsuccessfully, to devote  convention sessions to the subject of outreach to the intermarried. (Like most conventions, there are big “plenary” sessions where most participants attend, and then there are multiple competing sessions over many time slots that attract smaller groups.)

I’ve actually spoken on panels at at least two GA’s, but the sessions were always about inclusivity generally, not outreach to interfaith families in particular. At last year’s GA in Nashville, there was nothing about intermarriage on the program. A GA visitor who didn’t know better, based on the absence of discussion at GA’s, wouldn’t be aware that outreach to interfaith families was the biggest challenge and opportunity the Jewish community faces.

I’m sorry I couldn’t go to Jerusalem this year, because finally things changed. I urge you to watch a video blog posted by Jacob Berkman of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which is embedded below. Berkman reports that Edgar Bronfman and Adam Bronfman broke new ground by bringing the subject of welcoming interfaith families to the front stage of the Jewish world. Continue reading

Civil Marriage to Arrive in Israel?

Civil marriage in Israel may have a new (sort-of) champion in Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, one of the two leading candidates for prime minister of Israel.

Last week, The Forward reported that Livni promised that if she wins in February, she will allow civil marriage for the 350,000 Russian-speaking immigrants and their children who are caught in the so-called “marriage trap.” In Israel, only the religious authorities have the legal authority to solemnize marriages. Because so many Russian Jews are unable to prove they have Jewish mothers, the chief rabbinate will not marry them.

Continue reading