Intermarriage Around the Reform/Progressive World

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.

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