A New Year of Creative Ferment

Summer ended this weekend and I was thinking it would be nice to ease into the Jewish New Year, spend some time quietly introspecting on the past year and what’s to come. Instead all signs are for a year of creative ferment in attitudes in the intermarriage world, started perhaps by
my August op-ed in the Forward, The Missing Mazel Tov, which expressed my dismay at the reaction of Jewish religious leaders to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, and continuing in the debate between Rabbis Leon Morris and Evan Moffic over weddings on Shabbat.

Our friend Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, has written one of the most important essays in years, God’s Covenant, Judaism and Interfaith Marriage. His essay in the Huffington Post provides a well-reasoned theoretical/intellectual basis for why Jewish leaders should have embraced Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky.

Almost nowhere among Jewish leadership — even in the liberal movements — has there been a full shedding of the preference for in-marriage. And that preference for one type of family over another inevitably must lead to a lesser welcoming for intermarried families.

You simply cannot say, “We welcome everybody equally, but we prefer one kind over another.” Maybe the difference in the way people are treated doesn’t always manifest on the surface level, but it bubbles up. This is not to say that we can’t discuss the challenges of raising Jewish children when one parent is not Jewish; what I’m talking about is the open preference for one type of couple over another, even when both may choose to raise Jewish children.

I urge you to read the entire essay. Here’s the conclusion:

Over the last quarter-century, nearly as many American Jews have married non-Jews as fellow Jews. Today, there are more intermarried than in-married households in the U.S., perhaps by as large a ratio as 60%-40%. The high rate of intermarriage can be seen as the defining opportunity to transform the Jewish community from an insular, tribal entity to a diverse and expanding peoplehood based on key common causes and beliefs. But first we have to make sure our common causes and beliefs are the right ones to be shouting from the mountaintops (hint: “don’t intermarry” isn’t one of them), and then we have to let go of the fear and begin genuinely welcoming as equal all who would select Judaism for themselves or their children.

Next, Rabbi James Ponet has written a very important piece for Tablet, Into the Jewish People: The rabbi who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding on his journey to accepting intermarriage. True to his word, Rabbi Ponet does not talk about the wedding in his piece, but instead describes the evolution in his attitudes over the course of nearly forty years. Rabbi Ponet clearly is a very thoughtful rabbi with a very serious respect for Jewish tradition. Before becoming Yale Hillel director in 1981, he writes, he

had come to understand that halachah reflects not so much the truth of God as the pragmatics of attempting to live in the world connected to divine norms whose claim, by definition, eludes one’s ability fully to realize. This understanding has guided me as a practicing rabbi as I have been called upon to make practical decisions, especially in areas where there is no precedent. Like intermarriage.

Until five years ago, he worked with intermarrying couples do design a ceremony but would not officiate himself. Then

I began to acknowledge that my legal scruple about officiating or co-officiating at such a wedding was not consistent with my willingness to discount many other traditional norms. The halachah’s non-recognition of a particular action had never restrained me from praying in an egalitarian minyan where a woman might serve as cantor, for example, or joining in a service at which instruments were played on Shabbat….

My problem with intermarriage, I now realize, is based on legitimate fears about the survival of our people, period. But what if our people is in fact evolving into new forms of identity and observance? What if we are indeed generating new models of Jewish commitment and engagement with the world? …

Again, I urge you to read the entire essay. Here is the conclusion:

I submit that it is time for Judaism to formulate a thoughtful, traditionally connected ceremony through which a Jew may enter into marriage with a non-Jew, a prescribed way or ways by which a rabbi may officiate or co-officiate at such a wedding. I believe we are the ever-evolving people and that there will always be among us those who are rigorously attached to ancient forms. I believe it is critical that there will also always be among us those who vigorously dream and search for new vessels into which to decant the sam chayyim, the living elixir of Torah. If we only look backward as we move into the future, we will surely stumble. We need scouts, envoys, chalutzim, pioneers to blaze new ways into the ancient-newness of Judaism.

Perhaps for example we might note that there may be stages of entrance into and levels of engagement with the Jewish people, which might find liturgical expression both in the wedding ceremony and at other lifecycle events going forward. After all, becoming a Jew, like becoming a person, takes a lifetime. And just as we want to be able to invite our ancestors to the weddings and brisses and bat mitvahs of the present generation, we want our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to feel drawn to the love and joy of being connected to the Jewish people. We want them to know that we have not forgotten that the Jewish people is “a covenant people, a light of nations.”

Next is a news article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, about Rabbi Noa Kushner (daughter of our own Karen Kushner), Judaism for Gen X: Get your Jewish on. Not ostensibly about intermarriage, Rabbi Kushner’s approach may be exactly what would appeal to young interfaith couples. Her motto is “Do Jewish stuff” and her goal is to get people to explore Judaism beyond traditions like services and seders, particularly the young families in her Marin County community. She created Nita (a project of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael), a group made up of primarily Gen Xers who meet periodically and informally for occasions from monthly Pop-Up Shabbats (featuring great music and takeout so no one needs to cook), to Havdallah House Parties and Storahtelling. She also created Lift Kits – a portable collection of items (including Shabbat candles, organic soap, a hot pink mezuzah and a directory of Jewish organizations) designed for High Holy Day preparation and to help people celebrate traditions wherever they happen to be. Here are some of Rabbi Kushner’s comments, and again I urge you to read the entire article:

Gen X’s less-than-enthusiastic response to synagogue life simply means there’s a new generation stepping forward, one that needs to figure out how “do Jewish” on its own terms.

There is a big distinction between somebody’s religion by birth and what they are willing to do. We are careful to note: Anybody can do Jewish stuff. I am not interested in lineage and pedigree. I am only interested in what someone is willing to do right now, Jewishly speaking.

Similar to yoga’s metamorphosis, if we want people to grow Jewishly, we need to encourage them to do Jewish. I am not asking anyone to sign on the dotted line or join a group. There is no identity shift.

Just a couple of other things to mention, with Rosh Hashanah imminent. Reboot has started a national project, 10Q, that asks people to answer a question a day online for ten days during the High Holidays, beginning on September 8. Visit their website to participate.

Finally, and I’ll have more to say about this later on – I have been nominated for the Jewish Community Hero award, given by the Jewish Federations of North America. They start with an online voting contest; the top twenty vote getters are then judged by a panel, which selects one winner and four other honorees, each of whom receives a grant for their organization, all announced at the General Assembly in November. Please vote for me on their website. You can vote every twelve hours, so vote early and often!

Right now I’m number 17 in the voting. I don’t care about winning an award for myself. But the JFNA hasn’t talked about intermarriage much in the past. I wish the other candidates well – but most of them come from the traditional Jewish world. It would be great if the federation world recognized not me personally but the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life – especially when we are in a time where a new, heavily intermarried generation needs to figure out how to “do Jewish” on its own terms, when we are evolving new models of Jewish commitment and engagement with the world, and when we have an opportunity to transform the Jewish community from an insular, tribal entity to a diverse and expanding community based on key common causes and beliefs.

To all who are welcoming in the New Year, I wish that it is a happy, healthy and sweet one for you and your families. Shana Tova!

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