It’s been a hard week in Boston. A family member of someone very important to InterfaithFamily was severely injured in the Marathon bombing. I live in Newton a few miles from where the second suspect was ultimately captured and we were on lock down Friday, wondering what we might encounter if we stepped outside.
Unfortunately I also felt a pall settling over the attitudes towards intermarriage of the leaders of the Jewish community. First I felt the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly left out. In eJewishPhilanthropy Jay Ruderman wrote about a major upcoming conference for funders on inclusivity for Jews with disabilities. It made me wonder, will we ever see an announcement like this (paraphrasing Ruderman’s):
The upcoming [Including Interfaith Families] Funding Conference is specifically designed to engage and challenge Jewish funders. We do not want philanthropists to change their funding strategies but we want them to consider being more inclusive with their charitable donations.
Conference attendees will learn:
- how to include supports, services and opportunities for [interfaith families]
- how to recognize programs that promote inclusion
- how to deal with pressure from prominent organizations to fund programs that [exclude].
To advance the cause of inclusive philanthropy, the conference partners with major Jewish organizations so they too can bring this message to their funders. Partners include the Jewish Funders Network, Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. Their participation shows the importance attached to full inclusion and their commitment to making it a reality.
Next, IFF’s friend and colleague Idit Klein wrote a truly wonderful piece about the remarkable turnabout in acceptance of LGBT Jews. But again I felt left out and wondering whether Idit’s conclusion will ever apply to interfaith families:
[E]xpanding the circle of stakeholders starts when we locate the particularities of our identity within the larger collective. In doing so, the larger collective begins to see each of its members as part of the “we” — embracing diversity as a unifying element of the Jewish future.
Don’t get me wrong — I am totally in favor of inclusivity for Jews with disabilities and LGBT Jews. But the inclusivity agenda should not be co-opted so as to not apply to interfaith families, and without detracting at all from those other worthy causes engaging interfaith families should not be neglected. Just in terms of numbers, the potential impact of engaging interfaith families Jewishly vastly outweighs any other issue. When will the Jewish Funders Network and the Jewish Federations of North America and individuals with the capacity and will of Jay Ruderman seize that opportunity?
Second, I felt that continuing expressions of negativity about intermarriage seemed to peak this week, and I have to wonder whether the relative neglect of our cause still is tied to these kinds of views. Our Board Chair, Mamie Kanfer Stewart, had a very positive piece in Sh’ma, No Conversion Required, urging Jewish leaders to
[R]eframe the question, “Who is a Jew?” into “Who is part of the Jewish community?” Rather than focusing on Jewish status, we can honor everyone, Jewish or not, who is bringing the riches of Jewish traditions and sensibilities to our lives.
But then came a comment from Harold Berman, who with his wife Gayle Berman has been getting a lot of publicity about their book, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, and has founded an organization to help intermarried families who wish to explore becoming observant Jewish families, which is what happened to the Bermans. Again, don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great if partners who aren’t Jewish decide to convert and become traditionally observant. But Jewish leaders must realize that this is not likely to happen in anything but a marginal fractional of the large intermarried population.
And then came a comment from Rabbi Richard Hirsh, the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly, who questions why the Jewish community should thank parents who are not Jewish for raising their children as Jews, asking whether doing so suggests that there is something “negative, risky or difficult” about someone being raised as a Jew. Rabbi Hirsh explicitly takes great pains to not be insensitive, but with all respect, his question reveals a lack of understanding of the dynamic of interfaith families raising Jewish children. It’s quite simple: people who are giving up passing on their own religious traditions to their children, in favor of raising them as Jews, something the Jewish community needs to have happen if it is to grow and be enriched, deserve expressions of appreciation.
Elsewhere in Sh’ma is perhaps the worst of all, Identity, Intermarriage and the Larger Picture by a Conservative Rabbi, Amitai Adler, who says “intermarriage does the Jewish People no favors” and that “We solved the problem of what to do if one falls in love with a non-Jew a long time ago, by creating the halachot of conversion. There is little reason to think that solution is insufficient.” Rabbi Adler, the outflow of members from the synagogues of your denomination, which most people attribute to a relative lack of welcoming to interfaith couples, suggests otherwise. If you are right that “endogamy… [is] essential to the integrity and continuance of the Jewish People” [emphasis in original] then the future of our people is dim, given the ongoing reality of intermarriage.
In the meantime there is Naomi Schaefer Riley, who continues to get publicity for her book ‘Til Faith Do Us Part, that I’ve blogged about before. Despite the fact that she is herself an intermarried Jew raising Jewish children apparently in a happy marriage, and despite the fact that the survey on which she bases her book had only 44 Jews which she admits is “too small to draw definitive conclusions,” her message in her New York Times op-ed still is that Jewish (and other) intermarriage leads to more divorce and weakened religious affiliation.
I do try to keep my eye on the positive. On April 28 the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is sponsoring a “community conversation” in which we are participating that I hope will lead to increased programming for interfaith families there. On June 19 the UJA Federation of New York is sponsoring a “Touching Lives and Growing Our Community” forum on engaging interfaith families in which we are participating that I hope will have the result. In March I spoke at the Beth El Temple, a leading Conservative synagogue in West Hartford CT, and we are finding increased interest among Conservative rabbis. Our friends at the Jewish Outreach Institute are making progress too.
In the meantime we are steadily advancing our InterfaithFamily/Your Community model and finding increasing willingness from Jewish communal organizations to partner with us in Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Thousands of people are coming to our website every day — almost 5,000 on the day Passover began. We get on average six requests a day to our referral service that helps interfaith couples find rabbis and cantor for their weddings and other life cycle events. There is no doubt in my mind that the future growth and vitality of the liberal Jewish community depends on engaging these very real people in Jewish life, and I hope that those who are making the effort aren’t hearing or aren’t affected by the negative views of some Jewish leaders. I’m certain we would have many more interfaith families engaging Jewishly if we had a truly inclusive culture.
We also are extremely fortunate to have some enlightened funders who have not been swayed by negativity. But like Jay Ruderman, “we need more partners in our efforts.” To paraphrase him again, I ask, when will we see importance attached to full inclusion of interfaith families in Jewish life and community — and commitment from Jewish leaders to making that a reality?
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