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The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. Iâ€™ve seen articles that talk about â€ścaving on intermarriageâ€ť and â€ścoming to terms with itâ€ť and â€śaddressing the problem.â€ť This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.
By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What weâ€™re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.
We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. Itâ€™s not a disease. Itâ€™s not a shameful act. Itâ€™s a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. Itâ€™s about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.
When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, â€śThanks for doing the work that Iâ€™m not allowed to do.â€ť
So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues donâ€™t deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that â€śWe accept you and your partnerâ€ť and also, â€śI cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.â€ť These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.
One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this coupleâ€”a Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnosticâ€”they said, â€śWe never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now weâ€™re excited to have a rabbi.â€ť I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing â€śNo, youâ€™re not welcome hereâ€ť either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.
Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: â€śMy fiancĂ© is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didnâ€™t want a rabbi because he was worried heâ€™d feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.â€ť
I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.
I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.
Families are complicated and most peopleâ€™s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.
Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesnâ€™t matter.Â People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she wonâ€™t marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.
Photo credit: Tom The Photographer
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INTERFAITHFAMILY RECEIVES ROCKOWER AWARD FOR
Â The American Jewish Press Association announces the 36th Annual Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
Â Newton, MA – InterfaithFamily has once again been named as a winner in the AJPAâ€™s annual Simon Rockower Awards in the category of Outstanding Digital Outreach for 2016. This second place prize is credited to Editorial Director, Lindsey Silken, and National Director of Marketing and Communication, Liz Polay-Wettengel.
InterfaithFamilyâ€™s award-winning website, InterfaithFamily.com, published a steady stream of new blog posts on topics around interfaith wedding planning, dating, parenting in an interfaith home and grandparenting, garnering more than 1.2 million visitors in 2016. From new how-to-do Jewish guides and videos to recipes and pop culture, InterfaithFamily.com provides a comfortable 24/7 non-judgmental space from which to explore Jewish life.
â€śI am thrilled that our resources and stories resonate with so many and provide our readers with a sense of belonging and the resources to be Jewish on their own terms,â€ť said InterfaithFamily National Director of Marketing and Communication, Liz Polay-Wettengel.
The award also encompassed InterfaithFamilyâ€™s robust digital presence on social media and via email. InterfaithFamily has an active following on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other platforms, including local Facebook groups in the seven InterfaithFamily/Your Communities. Every two weeks, an enewsletter reaches approximately 20,000 subscribers to share the latest content about how to incorporate Judaism into their homes and lives.
Editorial Director, Lindsey Silken says, â€śIt is very meaningful for us to be honored by the American Jewish Press Association alongside other publications I admire. Iâ€™m so glad our digital guides, blogs, social media and newsletters are making an impact and connecting couples and families with Judaism and with one another.â€ť
InterfaithFamily empowers people in interfaith relationships â€” individuals, couples, families and their children â€” to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices, and encourages Jewish communities to welcome them. InterfaithFamilyâ€™s overarching goal is for people in interfaith relationships to be welcomed and embraced by the Jewish community and for interfaith families to contribute to Judaismâ€™s enduring strength and continuity.
Awards were judged on work completed in 2016 and prizes will be presented at the 36th Annual Simon Rockower Awards banquet held in conjunction with the American Jewish Press Associationâ€™s 2017 Annual Conference, Nov. 13-15, in Los Angeles, CA. The full list of award winners can be viewed here.
About the American Jewish Press Association
As a network of Jewish media organizations, journalists and communications professionals, AJPA works to ensure a bright future for Jewish journalism and the Jewish community by promoting robust, independent and financially healthy Jewish media.
AJPA fosters the highest ethics, editorial quality and business standards to help our members navigate their challenges and responsibilities, especially those unique to the Jewish media. We share resources and expertise, provide access to professional development, and, when appropriate, advocate for our collective interests.
InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, DC with an affiliate program in Cleveland.
Note: All comments on InterfaithFamily are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Thereâ€™s been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who weâ€™ve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in theÂ Washington Post:Â I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.
Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offeredÂ Itâ€™s Time to Say â€śYes.â€ťÂ Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation howÂ The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a â€śYesâ€ť to Interfaith Couples.Â But another young Conservative rabbi wrote aboutÂ five steps to â€śsave Conservative Judaismâ€ťÂ â€“ with no mention of interfaith families.
In June an article in theÂ ForwardÂ about rabbis trying toÂ make the Conservative movement more gay-friendlyÂ mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; â€śLau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.â€ť
Lau-Lavieâ€™s Lab/Shul hadÂ announced an annual celebrationÂ on June 13 featuring â€śthe revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americansâ€ť â€“ but the news is out in an piece by theÂ Forwardâ€™sÂ Jane Eisner,Â Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews â€” And The Jew-ish.Â As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use theÂ ger toshav, resident alien, concept â€świthin a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.â€ť He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he wonâ€™t co-officiate). He will engage academics to â€śstudy whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.â€ť He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.
Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is â€śfascinatedâ€ť by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, toÂ simultaneously commentÂ that while we â€śneedâ€ť Lau-Lavieâ€™s approach, it wonâ€™t succeed unless Jews â€śunderstand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.â€ť
I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, hasÂ expressed open-nessÂ to the experiment â€” but cautions that itâ€™s the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.
In the newÂ ForwardÂ piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children arenâ€™t raised Jews-by-religion, itâ€™s not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have aÂ new paperÂ released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews donâ€™t measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.
That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away. Â Eisner says she wants to â€śsustain and enrich modern Jewish life;â€ť Cohen says â€śBeing Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us â€“ to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.â€ť We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands â€“ and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life â€“ with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.
In an otherwise really nice article,Â How My Daughterâ€™s Bat Mitzvah Almost Didnâ€™t Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family â€śsurvived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.â€ť Â Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but theÂ ForwardÂ editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.
In an otherwise fine article titledÂ College doesnâ€™t turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says â€ścollege education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.â€ť In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse â€“ being intermarried â€“ with assimilation. He should know better.
Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackleyâ€™sÂ TEDx talkÂ about how they are raising their children withÂ Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.
Iâ€™ll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim Keenâ€™sÂ Inside IntermarriageÂ â€“ I was honored to write the Foreword â€“ will be available on August 1 but can beÂ pre-orderedÂ now. The third edition of our friend Anita Diamantâ€™sÂ The New Jewish WeddingÂ â€“ now titledÂ The Jewish Wedding NowÂ â€“ came out this past week.
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IÂ applaudedÂ in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movementâ€™s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of theÂ Audacious Hospitality ToolkitÂ surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?
The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movementâ€™s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism andÂ InterfaithFamily.
But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
In 2000 I wrote an op-ed,Â Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, forÂ Reform JudaismÂ magazine, and a longerÂ We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish FamiliesÂ for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include â€“ indeed, embrace â€“ not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as â€śin,â€ť as part of â€śus,â€ť as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as â€śout,â€ť â€śother,â€ť not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person â€śisâ€ť Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to â€śdoâ€ť Jewish.
Itâ€™s not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.
One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, â€śitâ€™s wonderful that your daughter has a partner â€“ but wouldnâ€™t you prefer that she were straight?â€ť No, he wouldnâ€™t, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and Iâ€™ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said â€śis she Jewishâ€ť? right in front of my daughterâ€™s husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be â€śsub-optimal.â€ť
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children arenâ€™t â€śreallyâ€ť Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like â€śger toshavâ€ť is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they donâ€™t want their childrenâ€™s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more â€śinâ€ť or â€śoutâ€ť and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies â€“ and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.
A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the â€śusâ€ť to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have anÂ aliyahÂ excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.
After theÂ Cohen Centerâ€™s recent researchÂ showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogueâ€™s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCARâ€™s books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. Thatâ€™s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionistsâ€™ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?
Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to â€śdo both.â€ť What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors â€“ when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion â€“ they mostly get â€śnoâ€ť for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most wonâ€™t co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who havenâ€™t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we donâ€™t have to recommend or favor raising children as â€śboth,â€ť providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.
The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive â€“ yes, a truly audacious â€“ hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and donâ€™t need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.
As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?
Rabbi Mychal Copeland served as director of IFF/Bay Area until June, 2017 and is the incoming rabbi at Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.
When I met my first girlfriend at 22 years old, I fell head over heels.Â My mind was swirling for at least a yearâ€”processing how this person would change my life, when and how I would tell my parents I might be a lesbian and how her more conservative parents would take the news.Â But mostly it was swirling from being in love.Â The last thing on my mind was the fact that she wasnâ€™t Jewish.Â And that isnâ€™t because I didnâ€™t care about Judaism; in fact, I was on a path to become a rabbi.Â I knew I would always live a Jewish life and any kids I might have would be raised Jewish as well.Â On the list of things to fret about, her religious identity was far from the top.
Since then, these overlapping identities have profoundly shaped my work. My two greatest passions are supporting people in interfaith relationships and exploring the intersections between LGBTQI identities and religion.Â In some ways, they are distinct: The first deals with choice in a modern landscape while the other is usually thought to be a non-choice that pushes against the foundations of many of the worldâ€™s religions, including Judaism.
The two converge around the principle of otherness. Because both challenge entrenched religious boundaries, people identifying as interfaith or LGBTQI often feel like the quintessential other. In the 20-some years since that first girlfriend became my life partner, I have found that both realities inform the way I see our relationship and my connection to Judaism.Â In working with other interfaith LGBTQI couples, it seems that some of my personal revelations are far from unique.
In honor of LGBTQI Pride Month this June, I set out to explore how we can best honor LGBTQI Jews and their partners who arenâ€™t Jewish.Â What is particular about the cross section of identities when LGBTQI people are in interfaith, interracial or intercultural relationships?
When my partner and I offered our vows to one another, we recalled words from the Book of Ruth.Â In this biblical story, Ruth, the Moabite, vows to follow the Israelite, Naomi, declaring, â€śWherever you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.â€ť Acknowledging that they come from distinct cultural backgrounds, Ruth tells Naomi that they will always be family.Â This Pride month, letâ€™s celebrate the diversity in our LGBTQI relationships
For those of you who follow the lives of the royal family, Prince Harryâ€™s relationship withÂ Suits star Meghan Markle got a renewed buzz when Elle UK and the Express reported that the two can now be married at Westminster Abbey.
Because Markle was married before, there was question of whether Prince Harry could follow in the footsteps of his brother, Prince William, and get married at Westminster Abbey. His father chose a civil ceremony for his second marriage.
The other issue that has come into question for the couple is one of faith. There is wide speculation that Markle is Jewish and therefore, would most likely have an interfaith wedding. However, because she attended a Roman Catholic high school, there are also rumors that she is Roman Catholic. Even with amendments to the Act of Settlement of 1701, a Roman Catholic is still not able to become a monarch since it conflicts with the monarchy also being the head of the Church of England.
Still, the excitement for another royal wedding is definitely in the air. Now itâ€™s up to Prince Harry (or Meghan) to pop the big question! We hope to hear wedding bells soon.
A Reform rabbi, a Conservative rabbi and a 17-year-old Orthodox Yeshiva student sit down to eat Shabbat dinnerâ€¦ Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?
Well, itâ€™s not.
It was my family last Friday night. We were also joined by my two younger children. In myÂ family, weâ€™ve got a taste of kâ€™lal Yisraelâ€”the whole Jewish communityâ€”under one roof. I often tell my younger kids jokingly (well, mostly joking) that if my oldest son goes on to get Orthodox smicha (rabbinic ordination, which many males in his Orthodox community do) then I want one of them to be ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, so we can have rabbis in all four major denominations of Judaism in our immediate family.
I was thrilled to have my oldest son home for a weekend break from his Yeshiva (Orthodox boarding school focused primarily on the study of traditional Jewish texts) and to have my whole family gathered together around our Shabbat dinner table. As I blessed my children after lighting the Shabbat candles, I put my hands on each of their heads and then kissed them, and I thought about how lucky I was to have each of them and how much I love each and every individual in my religiously diverse Jewish family.
Sure, having a very observant Orthodox child (which he has been for two years now) in our family isnâ€™t always easy. I had always assumed that my kids would all live at home until going off to college at the age of 18, but instead my oldest began boarding at an out-of-town Yeshiva this past September, when he was 16-and-a-half, and I miss having him at home. But when he is at home itâ€™s challenging that our level of kashrut (Jewish dietary observance) isnâ€™t as strict as his. While my husband and I will eat fish or vegetables at regular restaurants, heâ€™ll only eat at a kosher restaurant with a hashgacha (kosher certification) that he accepts. His lifestyleâ€™s very different from ours so that, even when heâ€™s not at school, itâ€™s not really possible for him to travel with us unless we were to go to places where predominately Orthodox families travel, so that he can pray, eat and follow laws of modesty in ways that are comfortable to him. But those same lifestyle choices might be uncomfortable for the rest of us.
We make it work. When heâ€™s home, we go to our favorite kosher restaurant. Last December we took our two younger kids out of school a few days early to go away over winter break so that weâ€™d be back in time for our oldest son to come home for his long weekend off that started on December 29.
As I tell the interfaith couples that I work with, and as Iâ€™ve come to appreciate in my own life: Being in a relationship means respecting differences, honoring the person you love even when you disagree, compromising where you can, and knowing what issues are non-negotiable for you and for the other person. (For example, my son wonâ€™t attend a service where men and women sit together, so I accept that he wonâ€™t come to my synagogue when heâ€™s home. And he accepts that, while Iâ€™ll wear a long skirt and follow the other laws of dressing modestly while visiting him at school, unlike his classmatesâ€™ mothers, I normally wear pants.)
Equally important is working hard not to judge the other person. When my son started to become very observant, my husband and I sat him down and said to him: â€śWeâ€™re very concerned about you being Orthodox, because Orthodoxy is so judgmental.â€ť My son looked us in the eyes and without missing a beat said: â€śDo you have any idea how judgmental youâ€™ve been of me and of my being Orthodox?â€ť The words stung, because we knew he was right. We werenâ€™t really being as open-minded, tolerant and accepting as we thought we were. Sure, itâ€™s easy to be tolerant of whatever youâ€™re already comfortable with. Itâ€™s a lot more challenging to be tolerant when something is outside of your comfort zone.
I often speak to parents whose adult children are in interfaith relationships. I tell them that when our children are young, we can choose how we raise them and what we expose them to. We have all kinds of expectations about what they should be like and what they should do as they grow older. And we think that by what we tell them and with the example we set, we can control how theyâ€™ll later lead their lives and the choices theyâ€™ll make.
Sometimes this is true. But other times, our children will follow their own paths, and fall in love with someoneâ€”or in my sonâ€™s case, a way of lifeâ€”thatâ€™s different from what weâ€™d planned. This can be difficult, but ultimately we need to respect and honor our childrenâ€™s choices. This same advice I give to parents whose kids are in interfaith relationships applies to my own religiously diverse family.
Being in a family with intra-faith differences, like being in an interfaith family, has its challenges. But just like being in an interfaith family, it also has its blessings. The bottom line is that I love my wonderful, crazy family with all of our intra-faith diversity. It isnâ€™t always easy, but itâ€™s my family, and I couldnâ€™t imagine it any other way.
Being from an interfaith family has influenced my life in myriad ways, most especially in my choice to focus my rabbinate on working with other interfaith families. Iâ€™ve written about my own upbringing and my parents several times over my tenure at InterfaithFamily, hoping that my own experiences might resonate with our readers. Yet, so far, everything I have shared has been in my voice and from my perspective. So, in honor of Motherâ€™s Day and to honor my mother, I interviewed her to finally shine some light on her perspective.
I asked her a variety of questions about her early life and meeting my dad and then about how they made decisions about religion as they had children. While we have had many conversations throughout my life touching on similar topics, I have never sat down with my mother and asked her what it was like for her to be in an interfaith family, especially long before it was as accepted as it is now.
My mom is a special woman; quiet and thoughtful, passionate yet relaxed. I am the Jew, the rabbi, the human being I am because of her and my dad. I hope you enjoy a piece of her story.
Some background: My mother, Kathy, was one of five children born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts in a very Polish Catholic family. When she was 18, she packed her bags and headed to college, the first in her family to attend, where she met my father Richard, a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were married by a justice of the peace in 1972 in Boston.
Me: When you were dating, did you ever have conversations about how you were from different backgrounds/religions?
Mom: We didnâ€™t really have a big conversation. Neither of us were particularly active in our religions. I grew up in a pretty Catholic family. My grandmother lived with us and was from Poland. The church was her life. She grew flowers and every day brought them to put on the alterâ€”it was within walking distance from the house. I never personally felt that connection even though, as a child, I attended every Sunday.
Richardâ€™s family wasnâ€™t particularly religious either. He wasnâ€™t practicing Judaism when I met him. So obviously, we were more concerned about what our parents would think as opposed to what we were going to do together.
Me: When you did decide to get married, how did your family react?
Mom: There were certain members of my family, some aunts, who didnâ€™t think it was right.Â My grandmother, who lived with us, wasnâ€™t supportive. They didnâ€™t come to our wedding. It stung not having them at my wedding, but it didnâ€™t disturb me for any length of time. But my parents and my sisters and brother were all on board after talking it through. It was just the way my parents were. They were very accepting and compromising and after having a conversation, my father said, â€śItâ€™s your life, you make the decision.â€ť And after that there were no repercussions.
Me: Did you know any other people who were also marrying someone from a different religion?
Mom: We went to college in Boston and there were a lot of people from the New York/New Jersey area and Massachusetts. So we were meeting different people all the time. My roommate, who was Catholic, met a Jewish guy from New Jersey and they were also married, a little after we were married. A couple of other people we knew in a similar situation also married. There didnâ€™t seem to be a barrier. It was kind of exciting to meet someone who was different. And religion never seemed to be a problem. It was the end of the â€™60s: These old barriers were meant to be broken.
Me: What was the conversation about who was going to officiate at your wedding?
Mom: We wanted a Justice of the Peace because it would just make it easier. Neither of us were connected to a synagogue or church and we felt that would be the easiest and cleanest. It wouldnâ€™t be favoring one over the other. We didnâ€™t care. We really didnâ€™t take religion into account at that point.
Me: In the first years of your marriage, before you had children, did you have any connection to religion?
Mom: For the first 10 years of our marriage, before we had children, we were a-religious. We might have gone to a family friendâ€™s house for Passover once, or Christmas at my parentâ€™s house, but never at our home. Because my upbringing was pretty rote (learn the Catechism, study the prayers, follow whatever you needed to do), it didnâ€™t feel relevant to my life at all. Judaism seemed interesting to me.
Me: When you were planning to have children, did you have any conversations about religion?
Mom: Recognizing we had two families each with different religions, we thought, weâ€™ll wait until our child is old enough to choose. It lasted for a little while, but it was naĂŻve to think that a child was going to grow up without a religion and suddenly pick one. When you were a baby, we thought that us teaching you would be enough.
Me: When did we start having any religion in our lives?
Mom: Well you know this story, Jillian. You had a friend named Julie, who was Jewish. She invited you go to her Hebrew School class and you came home and asked. You knew your dadâ€™s family was Jewish and mine was Catholic. We did explain this to you, that one family celebrated certain things and the other family celebrated other things. We wanted you to experience the world, so we said yes to you going to Hebrew School. But this came as a surprise to us.Â We were cringing that now we would have to deal with this issue.
So you went, loved it and asked if you could go again. And we thought, uh oh, this is the beginning. So we went to the temple to check it out and we spoke to a few people and were told we had to join, even though we were not eager to join. But we joined, so you could go to Hebrew School.
It was a Reform synagogue, so there was never a problem with me not being Jewish. They were eager to have us and they welcomed us wholeheartedly.
Me:Â What was your experience at synagogue?
Mom: It was like deer in the headlights! When do I stand or sit, what do I do? It was just a totally foreign way of having a religion as opposed to Catholicism. I was confused but learning as I went along. I felt welcome, everyone was very nice. We met a lot of older members of the synagogue who were thrilled we were there, and we are still friends with them now. It was a great community to be a part of. After learning more about Judaism, talking with people, listening to the Rabbi, I realized that this is a whole different animal than Catholicism. It was more about finding meaning, things you could bring into your life. It wasnâ€™t about memorizing; it was about thinking and challenging yourself. When I caught onto that, I thought, this is interesting to be a part of. It was a better religious experience for me than I had as a child.
Me: The question I canâ€™t believe I donâ€™t know the answer to: If someone were to ask you now what religion you are, what would you say?
Mom:Â I would say Iâ€™m Jewish, just to make it easier.Â I never converted, so I know Iâ€™m not technically Jewish.Â But from a view of the world, a philosophy, I am.
My momâ€™s story might be a bit like yours. Perhaps you related to a few things she said, remembered feeling similarly or maybe your story is vastly different. Whichever the case, telling and listening to stories is such a wonderfully and necessary human thing to do. We learn from each other, we gain perspective, we feel connected and less alone when we take the time to listen and learn about each other.
Finally, I want to thank my mother, Kathy Cameron, for being open with me, allowing me to make her story public and for being the best mom a girl could ask for. Happy Motherâ€™s Day, Mom.
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Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgoveâ€™s article in the New York Jewish Week, â€śMikveh Can Solve Conversion Problemâ€ť and Rabbi Shaul Magidâ€™s article in The Forward â€śWhy Conversion Lite Wonâ€™t Fix The Intermarriage Problem.â€ťÂ Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word â€śproblem.â€ť
I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isnâ€™t the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposedâ€”in fact, I often donâ€™t know what the article is going to be called until I see it online or in print. Editors give headlines to articles that they think will attract readers. And so, I presume that it wasnâ€™t Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word â€śproblemâ€ť in the headline of either of their articles about interfaith marriage (though in the first sentence of his article Rabbi Magid stated that intermarriage is â€śarguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewryâ€ť). But, the editors of the articles did choose to use the word and I find that disturbing.
For too long, the Jewish community has referred to interfaith marriage as a problem. It implies that the people in those marriagesâ€”the Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different backgroundâ€”are also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, weâ€™ve been talking out of both sides of our mouth. On the one hand, we spend our resources (both time and money) trying to figure out how to engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life, and on the other hand, we tell these people that theyâ€™re a problem. So, hereâ€™s a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, letâ€™s stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.
Throughout the four years that Iâ€™ve been working for InterfaithFamily, a national organization whose mission is to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life and to advocate for the inclusion of people in interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, Iâ€™ve been especially sensitive to the language thatâ€™s used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. Iâ€™m constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who arenâ€™t Orthodox. We hear about the â€śproblemsâ€ť and â€śchallengesâ€ť of interfaith relationships and we see classes on â€śthe December Dilemmaâ€ť and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.
Iâ€™m proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesnâ€™t just reflect the way we think; it also shapes the way we think. At InterfaithFamily, we speak about the challenges *and* blessings of being in an interfaith relationship and we offer classes on â€śthe December Dialogueâ€ť or â€śthe December Discussion.â€ť
We at InterfaithFamily also advocate for framing discussions about interfaith marriage not as how we can solve a problem, but rather as how we can view interfaith marriage as an opportunityâ€”an opportunity not simply to increase our numbers in the Jewish community, but also for the Jewish community to evolve in a rich and meaningful way, with people who did not grow up Jewish bringing new insights and perspectives as they choose to engage in Jewish life.
I ask the editors of the Jewish press and others in the Jewish community to join us in our effort to reconsider the language being used to discuss interfaith marriage. Please, whether you see interfaith marriage as an opportunity or not, stop calling it a problem. At the very least, why not just name it as what it is, and what itâ€™s sure to remain in the future: reality. Once we accept this reality, and stop referring to it as a problem to be solved, we can surely have a more productive conversation about how to best engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life in a way thatâ€™s meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that â€śthe Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.â€ť He wants to â€śmeet people where they are,â€ť and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be â€śfully observant.â€ť
I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I donâ€™t have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and â€śdoableâ€ť will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married â€śwhere they areâ€ť is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.
As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:
We really donâ€™t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of â€śpolite societyâ€ť said at the advent of racial intermarriageâ€¦.
If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status â€“ so they leave.
Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:
I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.
Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would â€ślevel the playing field of Jewish identityâ€ť â€“ and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all bâ€™nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.
But these are band-aids that donâ€™t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be â€śpassionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.â€ť Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples â€“ all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.