Celebrity news from Hollywood including an interview with Maggie Gyllenhaal, and an update on Adam Levine and Behati Prinsloo.Go To Pop Culture
Keeping with Wednesday’s theme, I’d like to write about two very different recently published articles.
In Thursday’s The (New York) Jewish Week, Julie Wiener writes about an organization that commits “the ultimate taboo”: teaching both Judaism and Christianity to the children of interfaith couples. Going to visit the Interfaith Community’s religious school in Long Island, she was skeptical, “expecting either Jews for Jesus or an all-religion-is-the-same, kumbaya-type gathering.” After all, by the orthodoxy of the progressive Jewish world, raising children in two religions is “naive,” “confusing to children” and “practically criminal.” But she came away from the experience “impressed by the group’s intelligence and seriousness.”
Carefully sidestepping endorsement of the group’s methods (Wiener does work for The Jewish Week after all), she acknowledges that the children weened in its school are better prepared for Jewish engagement than children raised with no religion at all.
While I was at the Reform movement’s biennial last week, Anthony Weiss suggested in the Forward (Intermarriage Study Muddies Waters, December 12) that Boston’s figure of 60% of interfaith families raising their children as Jews may not be the result of its CJP-funded outreach programs, contrary to a Forward op-ed I co-wrote last year.
Weiss first argues that because other cities without outreach programs report similar rates, Bostonâ€™s rate cannot be tied to its outreach programs. But whether those rates are comparable is open to question. I am familiar with and confident in the survey methods (sampling and questions form) and results of the Boston survey; I don’t know the methods used in the other cities surveys and, as Ira Sheskin, the demographer who did those surveys, apparently told Weiss, “differing survey methods make it impossible to make precise comparisons between cities.” Continue reading
At its oversubscribed conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, the Jewish Outreach Institute announced the creation of a national directory of Jewish organizations committed to reaching out to the unaffiliated, including the intermarried, gays and lesbians and converts. Called “The Big Tent Coalition,” the online directory will list organizations that are friendly to the unaffiliated as well as provide a space for organizations to share resources, provide organizations with a “stamp of approval” from JOI and give individuals a place to find outreach-friendly organizations.
Much of this is similar to our own Connections in Your Area system, which also allows interfaith-friendly organizations to sign up and individuals to search for organizations. But the addition of JOI’s coalition to the field is laudable nonetheless.
I unfortunately had to back out of the conference at the last minute because we are putting the finishing touches on a redesigned website that will launch on Thursday, Oct. 25. That’s why I’ve been MIA from blogging the last few weeks, and why I will probably blog little again until the relaunch. There will be some exciting new features of the site as it rolls out, and I will keep you updated.
Noam Shpancer, the always controversial columnist for The (Columbus, Ohio) New Standard, an undiscovered gem of a Jewish newspaper, has written a new essay sure to stir up the paper’s more traditional readers. It’s titled Nu’ Ma? Let’s embrace intermarriage.
He is for welcoming interfaith families, but for a slightly different, and more radical, reason than typical outreach advocates. He notes that both sides of the intermarriage debate in the Jewish community “agree that protecting Judaism is the superseding goal.” For Shpancer, the value of that goal deserves “critical scrutiny.”
In Shpancer’s eyes, outreach advocates’ rationale is wrong even if their tactics are right. He sees the value of the continuity of any particular culture as ultimately contingent on its serving the greater purpose of bettering humanity. In Shpancer’s view, intermarried couples should be embraced because they promote humanity, not just Judaism. Moreover, the very phenomenon of intermarriage itself–not just already intermarried couples–should be promoted as a way to improve humanity.
If you accept Shpancer’s assumption that the ever-greater intermingling of races, religions and cultures will lead to greater peace and harmony, then his argument is rock-solid. But his universalist humanistic ethics are an ideal, not a reality.
While every religion or ideology may start out innocently as a system of universalist ethics, ultimately that belief system must gain cultural trappings to maintain group cohesion. And group cohesion is not merely a way of sustaining power and excluding the “other” to make insiders feel safe; group cohesion and discipline can help enforce sound moral codes. For all the faults of Islamist regimes, a widespread sense of moral responsibility (both self-enforced and state-enforced) keeps crime low. For whatever reason, humans have yet to be able to embrace a non-exclusive universalist system of ethics. We need cultural specificity and defined boundaries. To promote behaviors that don’t recognize this reality is naive at best and irresponsible at worst.
Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation (one of our funders), has written an important essay for The Forward titled “Let’s Put Out a Communal Welcome Mat.”
Adam, grandson of Samuel, founder of the Seagram’s liquor conglomerate, considers himself both an “insider” and an “outsider” in the Jewish world:
Our recent conference gathered 40 outreach professionals who are mostly doing the most established kinds of outreach: couples counseling and family education. But what are some new directions for outreach?
One idea comes from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which operates the “PJ Library,” a project that mails a year’s worth of free, age-appropriate Jewish children’s books and CDs to less-affiliated families with children, most of whom are interfaith families.
The PJ Library operates in 35 communities across the country. A recent survey showed that most of the families owned virtually no Jewish books before joining the program and now 75% of them read the PJ Library books to their children once a week or more. To extend the successful program into more communities, the Grinspoon Foundation has offered to match up to $100,000 raised for the program in any community by June 30, 2007.
I’ve also recently been in touch with one of the actors in “Both Sides of the Family,” a one-act play about intermarriage by Maryann Elder Goldstein that premiered in Cleveland in December. The play explores interfaith marriage through the lens of two characters: one, a divorced Jewish man remarried to a Christian woman who is raising his second family Christian, the other, a Christian woman raising her daughter Jewish with her Jewish husband. Well-written and well-acted, the play poignantly explores the challenges, both internal and social, that intermarried families face.
The small company that put on the play is looking to turn it into a roadshow in different Jewish communities. It could spark some very interesting conversations.
Last week was blog-free because I was at InterfaithFamily.com’s first-ever conference, a retreat for outreach professionals called “Nurturing Outreach: Embracing the Other, Taking Care of Ourselves.” Taking place at the Capital Camps and Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pa., it was the first-ever national conference for professionals working exclusively in outreach to interfaith families.
More than 50 people attended, including:
Among the highlights were a Biblical text study of midrash relating to intermarriage, led by Rabbi Brian Field; a session on research on outreach and intermarriage, led by Dr. Sherry Israel of Brandeis University; and a model outreach program visioning session. One of the most exciting developments was the broad-based support–the hunger, really–for a national organization of outreach professionals. Many of the people who work in outreach work in isolation, with little professional respect and for not much pay, and an organization could help them connect and share information in a way they haven’t done before. It could also potentially advocate for them, and the field of outreach in general, among major Jewish funders. As Eve Coulson, former assistant director of the Jewish Outreach Institute and IFF board member, said at the conference, we need to make outreach a fixture in Federation funding, like day schools, camps and Israel.
Judaism Your Way targets unaffiliated Jews, but it’s clear that Field’s passion is engaging the intermarried. He officiates at interfaith weddings without making any demands that the non-Jewish partner convert. It’s not a radical stance, but it is in opposition to the position of the local rabbinical association. Judaism Your Way’s services include wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews, baby namings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs or â€śalternative coming of age celebrations,â€ť Shabbat services, regular holiday observances, and High Holiday services.
About two months ago, the Jewish Outreach Institute presented the findings of its “outreach scan” to Jewish professionals in Morris County, New Jersey. To conduct the “outreach scan,” JOI cold calls and emails, and checks out the websites of, institutions in a particular area. The goal is to determine how welcoming–or unwelcoming–an area’s institutions are to unaffiliated Jews, including the intermarried.
I mention it now because JOI’s executive director, our friend, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, was recently named one of the top 50 rabbis in America by a very unscientific three-man poll published in Newsweek. He ranked 27th, putting him behind such famous rabbis as Harold Kushner and Shmuley Boteach but ahead of such luminaries as Elliot Dorff and Avi Weiss. Rabbis have already started scoffing at the list, but I’m guessing it will draw more attention to the work of many of these rabbis than they’ve ever had before. A few, like Kushner, Boteach and Michael Lerner, already have a well-established presence in the secular non-Jewish world, but many others are names known only to Jewish community insiders. And while the selection process was bizarre (since when do three Hollywood media barons know so much about rabbis?) and the ranking is biased towards the West Coast, all the names that should be on a list like this are on there.
Shaul Kelner, a Jewish studies professor at Vanderbilt University, takes Steven Cohen–and outreach advocates like ourselves, as well–down a notch with his wonderfully sensible op-ed for The Forward.
Essentially, he argues that debating over the value of outreach to the intermarried is misguided because in a pluralist Jewish world, there are spaces where outreach is promoted and there are spaces where it is shunned: