Trigger-Happy?

We recently received a video from the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, based in Boston’s North Shore. We’ve talked about the Lappin Foundation before; they fund and manage some great programs for interfaith families, but their spokespeople never miss an opportunity to denigrate intermarriage. This new video is no different. Called “Journey of Faith,” it’s meant to be a “trigger for discussion” on intermarriage and conversion to Judaism. It’s being distributed for free, and intended for “conversion classes, interfaith outreach programs, Introduction to Judaism courses, adult education courses, teen dialogue about dating, marriage and family, pre-marital counseling and training for clergy and Jewish communal workers.”

A little more than 10 minutes long, “Journey of Faith” features Doug and Jodi Smith of Marblehead, Mass. Doug was born Catholic and Jodi was born Jewish, but after almost 10 years of marriage, Doug decided to convert to Judaism in 2005. His reason for converting is pretty simple: he wanted to feel a “full” member of his family’s Conservative synagogue. He says he was especially struck at the 2005 High Holidays, when he saw his daughter on the bima and knew he couldn’t join her.

The video works admirably as a “trigger” to discuss the challenges facing an intermarried couple or an interfaith couple contemplating intermarriage. Before Jodi and Doug were engaged, they agreed to raise the children Jewish. Jodi asked Doug to take a conversion course, which he said was very helpful in understanding what raising children Jewish means (it’s not clear whether Jodi was trying to push Doug to convert then or not). He says conversion wasn’t the “right thing for me at the time.” They went into the business of parenting clear-eyed, anticipating the “bumps” ahead, and decided to raise their children in one religion before they got engaged. They compare that to several of their intermarried friends who have avoided the issue altogether. They are quite persuasive in arguing for the importance of deciding how one will raise the children early-on.

But as a “trigger” to discuss the value of conversion, the video is a failure. While the discussion questions that accompany the video speak of “the tensions that arise from inter-dating and intermarriage” and how being in an interfaith family “wasn’t working for Douglas anymore,” the Smiths themselves give little indication that there were any problems being an intermarried family raising Jewish children. The only two challenges they mention are Jodi’s parents–who didn’t originally approve of a non-Jewish mate–and what Doug calls the “biggest challenge,” telling his parents about his plans to convert.

So let’s get this straight: this video is about the “tensions” of intermarriage and the appeal of conversion, and the only challenges the couple faced were from their parents? If the “biggest challenge” for Doug was telling his parents about his conversion plans, isn’t the video then arguing that conversion is a bigger problem than intermarriage? If anything, Doug is getting at one of the major reasons why many non-Jewish partners in intermarriages choose not to convert: they don’t want to upset their parents.

While the Lappin Foundation explicitly endorses Jews marrying Jews and non-Jewish partners in intermarriages converting, the video makes living in an intermarriage seem like no big deal. Once the Smiths decided how to raise the children, they didn’t suffer through any major tensions or crises. They don’t discuss conflicts arising from differing cultural traditions, value systems or politics, or any of the other practical reasons some Jews offer as proof that intermarriages don’t work. If anything, “Journey to Faith” proves that intermarriage can work–and conversion is not a necessary step to family peace and happiness.

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