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Our friend, and terrific journalist, Sue Fishkoff had a JTA story about the annual convention of the World Union of Progressive Judaism that missed what I think was a more important part of the convention.
The World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) is the association of Reform movements from all over the world. (Outside of the US, Reform Judaism is often called Progressive Judaism, hence the name of the association.) The WUPJ rarely holds its annual meeting in the US, but it did last week in San Francisco.
Sue’s story focuses on how Progressive Jews outside of the US have not adopted the American Reform Jewish movement’s doctrine of patrilineal descent which considers as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who is raised as a Jew. Sue attended a panel discussion on that subject, and reports that other than in the Liberal movement in England and in the former Soviet Union (and one congregation each in Ireland and Holland), no other Diaspora community recognizes patrilineal descent.
I wish Sue had been able to cover the panel discussion at which IFF’s Chief Education Officer, Karen Kushner, and our Advisory Board member, Rosanne Levitt, spoke about the importance of programming to welcome interfaith couples and families. And I wish she had been able to cover the evening session at which Rabbi Lawrence Kushner spoke, because what he had to say presents a compelling case in favor of patrilineal descent and other measures to welcome and include interfaith couples and families in Jewish communities – and not just in the US.
Yes, full disclosure, Rabbi Kushner is Karen Kushner’s husband – but according to the website of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, he is considered “one of the top leaders of American Reform Jewry” along with Rabbis Eric Yoffie (head of the US Reform movement), David Ellenson (head of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary), and David Saperstein (head of the URJ’s Religious Action Center).
Rabbi Kushner was kind enough to share his remarks, What it Means to Me to Be a Reform Jew, with IFF’s readers. Some of my favorite quotes:
It turns out that “assimilate” has two definitions. The more common, of course, means to dissolve into the local culture. It’s in that sense that our enemies accuse us of being assimilationist. But the reason we’re still here is because the word can also mean, not to disappear, but to deliberately take in something from the outside and make it one’s own. For example: The music business has assimilated hip-hop. And we Reform Jews have assimilated some very beautiful but non-Jewish liberal Western ideas: The equality of women; the normalization of gay people; social justice for everyone, not only Jews. But we didn’t swallow these ideas whole. We received them, we shaped them, we grounded them, we assimilated them. We made them Jewish, we made them mitzvot. That’s what we Reform Jews do; it’s who we are; it may even be why God wants us around.
We have been so terrified a Jew might fall in love with a non-Jew, we forgot that, every year, tens, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews also fall in love with, marry, and have children with Jews. They may not yet be willing or able to become Jews, but they have, with their very lives, thrown in their lot with us. Like it or not, they are members of our extended family. And they deserve an honored place at the table—and maybe even to be counted in the minyans Reform Jews claim they don’t count.
The presence at the table of these potentially new members of our family reminds us that we have something precious. They help us reexamine, deepen, and cherish our own piety. Jews who have chosen Judaism through conversion or, yes, through marrying a Jew and trying to make a Jewish home, free us from ethnocentrism and smugness. These people are not the enemy; they’re a gift.
[It is] the 21st Century and intermarriage is here to stay. The only question before us now is whether or not we will acknowledge social and religious reality and see what, yes, Heaven, wants of us now.
We at IFF are glad that the Kushners and Rosanne Levitt put a positive response to intermarriage on the WUPJ agenda, and we hope the delegates from around the world took in their message and will bring it back to their communities.
If you’re like me, the closest you got to the General Assembly in New Orleans was your twitter feed. I knew when our CEO, Ed Case, took the stage because the tweets became about interfaith families. Great!
So if you’re curious to hear what was said about interfaith families, interfaith inclusion, at the largest gathering of the North American Jewish community, look no further. We have a copy of Ed’s remarks here, just for you.
Let us know what you think!
Working for an organization that largely serves Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews (though we certainly are a resource to some Orthodox too), she wondered what happens when the types of Jews we serve, and non-Jews too, come across discussions like these. Is there a way to let our demographics know that not all Jews are so hateful or judgmental? Is there a way to let those who are new to, or outside, the Jewish community understand that the extreme perspective demonstrated on discussion boards like YWN‘s are not how all Jews feel? (Not to mention that the majority of Jews are Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated, not Orthodox. The Orthodox folks in this conversation need to recognize that the people they are discussing are Jewish and follow a Judaism they hold as real and legitimate, even if some of the Orthodox do not.)
It reminded me of the struggle that the Muslim community has, whether or not they need to constantly distance themselves from Muslim extremists and remind the world that not all Muslims think/feel that way. While those extremists are violent, ours are just exclusionary, which is harder, in some ways, to combat. Do we as progressive Jews need to take up a similar PR campaign? Hang a banner, so to speak, somewhere to remind folks that we’re not all closed-minded and hateful?
So let’s just put it here: We are a welcoming, open, community for all types of Jews!
I came across the blog Beauty Tips for Ministers thanks to a link from JewishBoston.com. It gave me a good laugh. Rev. Victoria “Vicki” Weinstein writes it under the name PeaceBang. While the blog is entertaining, what I found even more interesting was that Rev. Weinstein, a Universalist Unitarian minister, is the child of an interfaith family. According to a Boston Globe article, she is the daughter of a Jewish father and Russian Orthodox mother. She was raised Unitarian because the Unitarians welcomed her parents. Maybe we would have had one more really cool rabbi had her family been welcomed into a synagogue.
It’s an interesting link to the issue of welcoming. If you’ve been following our blog posts on the issue you’ll know that this is a heated topic in the “Jewish interfaith outreach world”. If you are not in the “Jewish interfaith outreach world”, the idea of welcoming people into a religious community may just be good manners. No one wants to feel unwelcomed, let alone made to feel like an outsider once they have been told to come on in. At InterfaithFamily.com, we hear all kinds of stories from people who have had negative interactions with clergy, professionals and lay people from a receptionist telling a woman who came in to sign her children up for Hebrew school but whose last name did not sound Jewish, “did she know that this was a JEWISH synagogue,” to a rabbi asking a long term Jewish congregant who was intermarried and whose parent had passed away “was she going to sit shiva [since she was intermarried]” to a non-Jewish spouse who was told he was not allowed to play on the synagogue’s softball team because he wasn’t Jewish. The Jewish community (as a whole or in parts) needs to work on what it means to be welcoming, but as individuals I think we need to work on our manners and common sense.
The artist behind www.talmud.comics.net, Yonah Lavery, got in touch with her fans in North America last night. She has been in Jerusalem studying Talmud (what else?) all year, and just got married! Now she’s Yonah Lavery-Israeli. I was so happy for her.
I was even more happy for myself because she sent along a blog post and a comic about things that are really important to our readers. Like all of her comics, it’s an illustration of a passage of Talmud, presented in an accessible style–in this case the story of the sons of Rabbi Chiyya in Tractate (that’s one of the 60 or so chapters of Talmud, also called a massechet in Hebrew) Berachot (Blessings) 3:18. Here’s the part of the comic I wanted to write about (click on it to see the whole thing at her site):
I was working on this comic in a little park in Netanya, and a religious Teimani (Yemenite) girl of about 8 or 9 came up and asked to look through. She asked what they were, and I told her comics of Masechet Berachot, and she was thrilled. It was really gratifying! “This comes from Talmud??” she asked a few times. I was suddenly very glad that I drew some (not enough) sages as people of colour and focussed on or drew in more (not enough) women. It’s so important that religious Jews be able to see themselves in the text and the text in them.
The other piece that makes this comic appropriate is that it’s about the pain of lost knowledge. It’s kind of amazing that this has been a cultural trope since the time of the Talmud. And here’s where we get to make the interfaith family link–it immediately made me think of Jane Larkin’s recent piece for us, Outreach Matters. In her discussion of why in-married families like to participate in interfaith family programs in her synagogue, she considered:
It’s a non-threatening environment. Our groups provide a safe learning environment. An inmarried mom said she felt embarrassed that she had questions about mitzvahs. In a setting where many of the other the participants weren’t raised Jewish and so didn’t expect themselves to know about Jewish concepts, it was safe for this mom to say, “I don’t know.”
We think of ourselves as the first generation to grapple with these issues, but in the learning-based culture of rabbinic Judaism, there’s been always been this sense of having lost knowledge. We learn again and again what it says in the Talmud (also in the same tractate or masechet, Berachot): “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know.’” (I will never forget this one because of the famous Ben Shahn poster–I try to keep those words in mind always.) There’s no way we could ever know as much as we think we should–so we might as well start where we are.
What should we do about divorce in interfaith families? Two people who are always smart about interfaith family issues, Laurel Snyder, the editor of the book Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes and Julie Wiener, a Jewish journalist writing on interfaith marriage for the New York Jewish Week, have written recently about outreach strategies and the Reyes divorce case. They said some things that have me saying a big Amen.
In After the Bus Wreck, Snyder wrote:
Because the single greatest problem I see in Jewish intermarriage is not a Christmas tree, it’s this—the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed. In all the most troubled cases I’ve encountered, this is the unifying narrative. Mom turns orthodox or Dad is born again. Dad moves to Israel or Mom marries a minister. Usually, divorce stands in for the lethal bus accident.
People who worry that interfaith marriage might lead to assimilation sometimes express the wish that intermarried partners would divorce. Aside from wishing misery on other people, which has to be some kind of sin somewhere, there’s this problem: adding a further layer of destabilization to a kid’s life by throwing their religious life up in the air.
And this case brings up the other “solution” to interfaith marriage–pressuring the non-Jewish spouse to convert. As Julie Wiener put it:
While I think conversion to Judaism can be a wonderful thing, too often the Jewish community pushes it in a way that seems like a dishonest, cosmetic solution to intermarriage — about making things look good, about covering up the non-Jewish partner’s embarrassing heritage and making the Jewish family feel like good Jews, rather than about encouraging real soul searching. I wonder how many of these cosmetic conversions actually last beyond the marriage that spurred them.
Julie then told the story of a woman she met who confided to her that though she’d converted during her marriage, she felt unmoored and like “nothing” after divorce.
A person can’t predict how he or she will feel in the wake of divorce. Most people don’t get married thinking, “this love is too good to last.” We can’t really blame people for changing their beliefs even in a marriage. What the Jewish community can do to support interfaith families is to get over discomfort about the role of non-Jews in the community. It would be better for people in the Jewish community to live with the discomfort of figuring out how to include non-Jewish spouses and family members in Jewish life than to pressure people for cosmetic conversions. The stakes are high–let’s go for the big win and not the bus wreck.
Today’s Cleveland Jewish News reports that Rabbis Richard Block and Roger Klein, from temple-tifereth-israel/">The Temple-Tifereth Israel, one of Cleveland’s largest Reform synagogues, have announced that they have changed their positions and will now officiate at weddings of interfaith couples under certain circumstances. The article reports that the rabbis will only officiate at the weddings of couples “in our congregational family” who are “committed to raising Jewish children, creating a Jewish home, and participating in the life of the community.” Rabbi Block, one of the most highly-regarded Reform rabbis in the country, reportedly said that the couple should commit to joining and maintaining membership in a synagogue, and that he will ask interfaith couples to take an introduction to Judaism course; he will not insist that the non-Jewish partner consider conversion, but will “urge them to do so.”
The timing of this announcement is interesting — the Reform rabbis’ association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), is meeting in San Francisco March 7 – 10, and prominent on its agenda is the release of a report from its Task Force on Intermarriage. The CCAR’s last resolution on officiation, dating from 1973, disapproves of the practice. We had hoped that the CCAR would approve a new resolution changing that position, but word is that the no new resolution is forthcoming.
I do sense that more and more Reform rabbis are changing their position in favor of officiation. For example, we re-published an important article by Rabbi Daniel Zemel, another very highly-regarded rabbi, from Temple Micah in Washington DC explaining his reasons for making that change.
But officiation remains a challenging issue. The January 2010 bulletin of Temple Sinai in Rochester New York reports that their junior rabbi, Amy Sapowith, decided that she would officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Her senior rabbi, Alan Katz, does not officiate, but supported her decision to do so. Rochester has a Board of Rabbis which does not allow its members to officiate; when Rabbi Sapowith announced her change, the Board asked her to resign. Rabbi Katz then voluntarily resigned from the Board of Rabbis.
InterfaithFamily.com’s Resource Center for Jewish Clergy has been working to help rabbis address the officiation question. We’ve held workshops for clergy in Boston (May 2008) and Philadelphia (February 2009) and have another coming in Atlanta on March 15, 2010. At each of the first two workshops, experienced rabbis told us that it was their first opportunity to have a meaningful discussion of the issue.
InterfaithFamily.com is exhibiting at the CCAR convention, so we’ll blog about the Task Force report when it comes out.
Why are programs and activities created especially for interfaith families called “outreach”? A blogger whom I’ve been following since I started my job here at InterfaithFamily.com referred to this rhetorical strategy as “symbolic violence”–a way of articulating the idea that good Jews are on the inside and interfaith relationships are on the outside. Why, she asks, are all the programs about the December Dilemma and conversion, with nothing acknowledging how much of the work of Jewish life is actually done by people in interfaith families? Why is the model to have people from in-married families doing outreach to intermarried families?
(Ah ha, I just finished an entire month of December Dilemma articles with a Resource Guide to Jewish Conversion. Nice timing, I now feel maximum defensiveness–though also an enhanced appreciation for January.)
Why do we call it outreach? The way the Jewish community has traditionally dealt with anything it finds scary is through ostracizing. When people talk about outreach, or in Hebrew kiruv, the implication isn’t only that someone is on the outside and someone is inside, reaching. It’s also that we aren’t actively pushing people who are inside, away.
“We” shouldn’t only mean in-married Jews who are working with intermarried Jews, because in my experience, people in interfaith families, including non-Jewish partners, are in the Jewish community, making good things happen. But I’m afraid the vision is still as my original blogger indicates, in spite of all the Jewish educators, lay and professional community workers and voices of the Jewish community that are children of interfaith families or in interfaith relationships or marriages.
Lately, I’ve seen more use of the word “welcoming” to mean something comprehensive about what kinds of synagogues and Jewish communal institutions we’d like to have. Sometimes we make a list of the groups of people we are explicitly NOT excluding, and sometimes not.
At the same time, the Jewish community is still doing the push-away activities that outreach is supposed to oppose. Unfortunately we still need a good code to communicate to people who want open, friendly Jewish communities, “we aren’t mean rude jerks.” Or at least, that we don’t mean to be–there are so many ways to fall short. I guess we have to keep listening if we want to achieve a Jewish community with no outreach because no one is out and it’s not a big reach for them to belong.
Look at this! On April 8, the Jewish community will have its first opportunity in 28 years to bless the sun. Apparently, the rabbis in the Talmud, in Tractate Berachot 59a, recorded an earlier Jewish tradition about where the sun was in the sky when it was created. A group of Jewish environmental organizations (including, I see, a lot of IFF’s friends) has put up a website, Bless the Sun to give an overview of why we do this every 28 years and to provide a clearinghouse of listings of community events and a platform for advocating for sustainable energy in a Jewish context. They are also running an art competition with entries due March 1.
(If you like this adorable sun picture, click it, and tell the photographer.)
I have another Talmud goodie for you: this page of Talmud Comics. I haven’t looked at all of these yet, but my favorite so far is probably this one, The Holy One’s Promise to Women. The artist is Yonah Lavery. I am hoping like crazy that this is going to become a book. Several Jewish bloggers have covered this before me, but I figure this work can’t have too much exposure.
Birthright Israel is an amazing program that gives young Jews from all over the world a 10 day trip to Israel. The goal is to connect young Jewish adults to each other, their community and Israel. A variety of organizations facilitate the actual tours. This year Birthright Israel is celebrating its 10th year and their 200,000th participant in their program. The trips are wildly popular and have helped many young people to better understand their Jewish identity, including young adult children of interfaith families.
After returning from the trip, participants are looking for more ways to explore their identity and the Jewish community is stepping up to the plate. As a recent article in The Jewish Week describes, the Jewish Enrichment Center (JEC) in New York is catering their programming to their children of Interfaith parents whose first formal affiliation with Judaism has been Birthright Israel. They host Friday night dinners, classes which are actually relevant, and a
I hope that Jewish community organizations continue to engage and interest this important demographic, the adult children of interfaith parents, which they have overlooked in the past. Better yet, I hope these young people can become builders of a North American Jewish future where Judaism and Israel are meaningful.