The Ever-Renewing People

Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, and Jason Edelstein published a very important essay today in Mosaic. The title is The Ever-Renewing People and the sub-heading aptly summarizes the essay: “Jewish life in America is actually flourishing, thanks in part to the energy of children of intermarriage.” It’s a response to another hand-wringing condemnation of intermarriage from Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen published a few weeks ago

In a nutshell, where Wertheimer and Cohen cite a decades-ago sociologist who when asked what the grandchildren of intermarried Jews should be called responded “Christian,” Edelsberg and Edelstein dismiss that notion as neither apt nor helpful. They note that thousands of young Jews – up to half of whom would be dismissed by Wertheimer and Cohen as “Christian” – attend Jewish summer camps, Jewish teen programs, Hillel and Moishe House. They put Wertheimer and Cohen’s pessimism in its place:

In the end, Wertheimer and Cohen’s depiction of [American Jewish] life as in need of being pulled back “from the brink” is another caricature of Jews as (in the phrase of the late Simon Rawidowicz) an “ever-dying people.” This belies our extraordinary history as a people and an ever-renewing faith tradition that, time and again, have demonstrated an ability to evolve and adapt, thereby avoiding the cliff that Wertheimer and Cohen have artificially constructed.

Every piece of research that has asked people in interfaith relationships why they are or are not engaged Jewishly cites numerous instances of interfaith couples feeling judged, or they or their children evaluated as “less Jewish.” Interfaith families still experience or perceive negative attitudes about their marriage choices from Jews and Jewish leaders – attitudes that are fueled by essays like Wertheimer and Cohen’s. That’s why the optimistic view of the future, on the part of one of the Jewish community’s most important philanthropists, is so important. That view supports increased efforts to engage even more interfaith families and children of interfaith families in Jewish life and community – to insure, in Edelsberg and Edelstein’s words, that diverse Jews “will continue to invigorate contemporary Judaism and invent new ways to experience American Jewish life.”

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Birthright Israel and Intermarriage

[This piece, by Edmund Case and Jodi Bromberg, was published in eJewishPhilathropy on September 11, 2014.]

Taglit-Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed and implemented to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews. A just-released study confirms many positive impacts of Birthright Israel on marriage and family choices.

At InterfaithFamily we greatly appreciate that participation in Birthright Israel is open to young adult Jews whose parents are intermarried; the new study says that 17% of participants from 2001 to 2006 have one Jewish parent and that recent trip cohorts include a larger proportion of those individuals. We have published several articles by trip participants about their very positive trip experiences and hope they have had some effect in alleviating any concerns children of intermarried parents might have about whether they will be truly welcomed. Our staff have participated in training Birthright Israel tour operators to be sensitive to participants whose parents are intermarried and have advised Birthright Israel staff on sensitive questions to determine trip eligibility. We seek to promote Birthright Israel Next activities where we have local staff in our InterfaithFamily/Your Communities – currently Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston, and coming in the fall of 2014 in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

We support Birthright Israel because it strengthens Jewish engagement among young Jews and in particular young Jews whose parents are intermarried. A 2009 evaluation study found that 52% of trip participants who were intermarried viewed raising children as Jews as very important, almost twice as many as 27% of non-participants. The new study again reports higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants having that view. The new study reports that the group of intermarried trip participants who have children at this time is too small to assess the impact of Birthright Israel on actual child raising; the authors do say it is possible that an impact will surface in the future, and that is what we fully expect to see. Higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants also have a special meal on Shabbat, attend religious services, and are otherwise engaged Jewishly.

The new study focuses on marriage choices and highlights that trip participants are more likely (72%) to marry other Jews than non-participants (55%). It finds that the impact of participation on marriage choices of participants whose parents are intermarried is “particularly striking;” for them, the likelihood of in-marriage is 55%, compared to 22% of non-participants whose parents are intermarried.

At InterfaithFamily we think it is wonderful when a young adult Jew falls in love and partners with or marries another Jew. That more participants on Birthright Israel trips marry Jews, and more participants whose parents are intermarried marry Jews, are very positive results. We also think Jewish communities need to genuinely welcome all newly-formed families, whether both partners are Jewish or not. Offering a sincere “mazel tov” is the first of many needed steps that can contribute to interfaith couples deciding to engage in Jewish life and community.

We don’t doubt the study’s conclusion that Birthright Israel has “the potential to alter broad demographic patterns of the American Jewish community” and change trends of in-marriage, intermarriage and raising Jewish children. We also don’t doubt that significant numbers and percentages of young adult Jews – whether they have the great good fortune to participate on a Birthright Israel trip or not – will continue to intermarry. In the new study, of all trip participants who are married, 28% are intermarried. Of participants who are married whose parents are intermarried, 45% are intermarried. The study’s authors note that some evidence suggests that the magnitude of the marriage choice effects may moderate over time – the likelihood of in-marriage decreases for participants as their age at marriage increases, and participants tend to marry later.

Further, large numbers of young adult Jews have not participated and sadly will not participate on a Birthright Israel trip. A large number of young adult Jews have already aged out of eligibility. It would be truly wonderful if resources could be raised and more young Jews attracted to participate on Birthright Israel trips, so that the annual number of participants would represent more than the current one-third of the eligible age cohort. Even if half or two thirds of those eligible could participate, a significant percentage still would not. At the study’s current rates, close to half of non-participants will intermarry.

The study’s authors note that discussion of the Pew Report “has, for the most part, ignored the contribution of improved and expanded Jewish education programs … to both the current contours of American Jewry and to its future trajectory.” The authors are referring in particular to Israel education programs, but they clearly believe that Jewish education programs work. At InterfaithFamily we believe it is imperative to offer Jewish education programs designed for and marketed explicitly to interfaith families – whether they participated in a Birthright Israel trip or not – like those offered as part of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative. The study includes numerous quotes from its survey respondents about their memorable Jewish experiences including Shabbat and holidays; our Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family class elicits multiple examples of the same kinds of comments. The study also notes that intermarried survey participants who had a sole Jewish officiant at their wedding were far more likely to be raising their children Jewish than those who had another type of officiation at their weddings; that’s why our personalized officiation referral service is so important.

Again, Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews, and we wish it great continued success, especially in attracting and strengthening Jewish engagement among young Jews with intermarried parents. Services and programs designed explicitly for interfaith families are badly needed too, and can work together with and in mutual support of Israel engagement programs, all with a goal of greater engagement in Jewish life and community.

Advice for Jewish Parents when Your Child Gets Engaged to Someone Who isn’t Jewish

As a rabbi, it’s not unusual for me to get a call from a Jewish parent whose child is engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish. The parent usually asks if we can get together to talk—sometimes they want to talk because they’re having a hard time accepting the fact that their child is going to be in an interfaith marriage and other times they want to discuss a particular issue that has come up. Here is some advice that I often give to such parents (which is really just a variation on advice that I give to parents of adult children in general):

1. Your child’s marrying someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t necessarily a rejection of Judaism…or of you. As I wrote in my recent blog “Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism” just because a person falls in love with someone of another religion (or no religion) it doesn’t mean that they don’t value their Judaism. Many people today don’t see loving someone of a different faith and having a strong Jewish identity as being mutually exclusive. Your child can love their partner and they can love being Jewish—and they can love you too!

Father and daughter2. Give your child the time and space to make his/her own decisions. You probably have lots of questions: Will they have a Jewish wedding? Are they going to have a Jewish home? How are they going to raise their children? While you may want to know the answers to all of your questions NOW (if not yesterday…), your child and his/her partner may not have all of the answers yet, and even if they do, they may not be ready to share them with you. Let them know (through your words, and even more important, your actions) that you respect their right to make decisions on their own time frame and to share them with you when they are ready.

3. Accept that these are your child’s and his/her partner’s decisions to make. Notice that I didn’t say that you have to agree with—or even like—all of their decisions. It may be very upsetting to you that your daughter has decided not to be married by your rabbi or that she is going to have a Christmas tree in her home. But she is an adult and these are decisions for her and her partner to make, not for you to make. Odds are that she already knows how you feel about these things and if you critique everything she tells you then she may not want to keep sharing with you.

4. Be honest, but respectful. It’s OK to be honest about how you feel. You can tell your son that it makes you sad that he won’t be married in a synagogue or that his fiancé isn’t converting to Judaism. Most of us aren’t such great actors anyway and it’s always best to be honest—while recognizing that sometimes, as we learned as children, “if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” As you share your feelings, make sure that you are clear that they are your feelings—and while they are real and will hopefully be acknowledged by your son, remember that he and his partner are going to make their own decisions and that while the intent of these decisions isn’t to make you sad, this may be the unfortunate byproduct of some of their decisions.

5. Ask your child if s/he wants your opinion or advice. Your daughter may share with you some of the challenges she is dealing with in her interfaith relationship. For example, she may tell you that she’s angry at her fiancé for insisting that she go to church with his family on Easter, or that she’s hurt that her fiancé won’t come with her to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Odds are that if you offer advice and she doesn’t really want it, or you propose a solution that ends up not working for her and her fiancé, the result is that she will be mad at you. So how do you know what she wants? ASK! You can simply say: “Do you want to just vent and I’ll listen to your feelings, or do you want to hear my opinion and my advice?” That way, you’ll know her real purpose in sharing with you and you can respond accordingly. And if she tells you that she wants you to just listen but not offer your opinion, but this is too difficult for you to do, then you should be up front about it and not get into a conversation that won’t be productive for either of you.

6. Get to know your child’s partner. Your son fell in love with the woman he’s going to marry, so presumably there’s something very special about her. If you haven’t already done so, then get to know her and treat her with kindness and respect. Invite her to participate in Jewish events and celebrations—that is, if these are things you would be doing anyway. If you have Shabbat dinner as a family, invite your son and his fiancé to join you so she can share the beauty of Shabbat with your family. Be welcoming and explain to her what’s going on, while being careful not to be patronizing. But if you don’t regularly go to synagogue on Saturday mornings, don’t invite her to synagogue with you just so you can “counteract” the fact that she isn’t Jewish.

7. Talk to other parents whose children have intermarried. As in many situations, it’s often nice to feel like you’re not alone. It can be helpful to speak with someone who has had a similar experience who can understand how you are feeling and who can provide you with advice and support. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, join our Facebook group and get in the conversation.

What advice would you offer to a parent whose child is intermarrying? If your child is married to someone of a different religion, were you given any advice that you found helpful? Is there advice you found not to be helpful?

The Choosing People

On Yom Kippur this year, I had the pleasure of listening to a personal, heartfelt and inspiring sermon by Rabbi Rachel Saphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. The sermon got my family thinking and talking and I thought you might enjoy it too. Rabbi Saphire has been kind enough to allow us to share this excerpt of her sermon, which is approximately the first half. Enjoy.

Whether you see it or not, you’ve made a choice to be here today.  You may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur.  It’s just what I do.  It’s what I’ve always done.”  You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family.  Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.”  Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal.  And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.

Our Torah portion for Yom Kippur comes from Parashat Nitzavim from the Book of Deuteronomy.  In just a few verses, God puts a big choice before us.

“You stand this day, all of you, before God —[leaders], elders, all the men, women and children of Israel, and even the non-Israelite living among you… to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…

Surely, this Instruction that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  [This Instruction] is not … beyond the sea – that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the Intruction is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life — that you and your offspring will live”

I find this text to be symbolic.  It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful wayFor, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred.   Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way.  The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.”  What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us.  It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community.  And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us!  The point is that we each actively have to make the choice.  Making this choice is a big deal.

The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children.  The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us.  Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.”  I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE!  What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?

I’ve thought about this question from a very young age.  I grew up in an interfaith family.  My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian.  My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews.  My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs.  What did that mean?   Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home.  I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.

I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish.  We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals.  A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles.  In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’  My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.”  She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.

All of these practices brought me joy.  I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not.  I also liked to fit in among my classmates.  And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”

Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school.  A new kid came to town.  He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH!  Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend.  I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices.  With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced.  Their traditions and rituals spanned generations.  They went to temple together.  Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about.  I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.

I began to explore my own identity.

“Who am I really and what is important to me?”

And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.

“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”

“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”

And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…

“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”

“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”

“Can we go to services?”

“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”

And then things like…

“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”

“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”

“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”

“Can I become Bat Mitzvah even if I’m now 17?”

“Can I study with the rabbi more?”

And so I did – all of these things.  My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple.  And there we built our own sense of Jewish community.  And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah.  And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.

These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore.  Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made.  But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME.  These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved.  Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice.  And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people.  We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week.  We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music.  We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world.  Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need.  We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest.  We could share our own family’s history.  We could question and explore our faith.  If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly. 

‘Til Faith Do Us Part

Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.

I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:

On the one hand, they must welcome them if they wish to keep up a connection with the believing spouse and his or her children. But they must also provide a strong sense of community and a gracious but confident expression of their own religious worldview. “Regularly engaging nonmember spouses in conversations about the faith is important,” she writes, noting that such engagement, if done with a soft touch, may bring the spouse into the fold. Finally, religious communities must focus more on reaching young adults, giving them a venue where they can engage their religious faith in a new way and meet a “soul mate” who draws them closer to the fold rather than leading them away from it.

I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.

The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:

My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place — and available to be scrutinized?

Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.

I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:

If the idea was to separate the two young people, it didn’t work. Shortly after Ron got to California, he sent Ann a plane ticket. When she arrived, they got married and have remained married to this day. She got a job at the university, took a class in Judaism and, much to my brother’s surprise, converted, although it took her a while to find a rabbi willing to give her the required course of instruction. Just the other day she remarked, “It was a hard club to get into.”

The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:

She just wants prospective interfaith couples to know that it is work, that love doesn’t conquer all, that “a rocky road may lie ahead of them” and that they “need to think in practical terms about their faith differences — how it will affect the way they spend their time, their money, and the way they want to raise their kids.” Her message is that if you don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be a bed of roses, you’ll have a better chance of its not being a bed of thorns.

That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.

Rabbinical Students and Intermarriage

Back in February, my colleague, Rebecca, blogged about a debate between two Reform rabbinic students: should the Reform rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College, accept students who are intermarried?

Rabbi Mark S. Miller

Two current students at HUC in New York, argued opposing sides in Reform Judaism Magazine. Rebecca summaried, “Daniel Kirzane, a current rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, says yes. His classmate, Brandon Bernstein, says no.”

Fast forward, and the debate is still raging. Not surprising, Kirzane has faced some attacks from classmates and rabbis, both Reform and those from other denominations.

The most recent comes from Rabbi Mark Miller, who shared his opinion in The Times Of Israel. He starts by explaining that there are two remaining lines that “cannot be crossed in Reform Judaism”:

a Reform Jew could not legitimately believe in Jesus and a Reform Rabbi could not marry a non-Jewish spouse.

He continues, explaining that while Kirzane’s position is grounded in the Reform movement’s outreach and inclusion of interfaith couples and their families, Miller actually sees that as the demise of Reform Judaism.

This position is the logical and lamentable outcome of Reform Judaism’s embrace of assimilation, of wanting to be everything to everyone, and of exalting the individual at the expense of the community. There are simply no standards, imperatives, or obligations. The adoration of autonomy led first to compromise, then to appeasement, and now to anarchy. For Rabbis to say there is no difference between the marriage of two Jews and a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew has led to the spectacle of Reform Rabbis officiating at intermarriages with non-Jewish clergy on Shabbat in churches. The response from Reform officialdom, if any, is tepid.

There is no greater threat to Jewish continuity than intermarriage. As Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen conclude in The Jew Within, their study of American Jewry, “Group identity cannot but weaken when Jews increasingly find themselves on both sides of ethnic boundaries.” For all the anecdotal “success” stories, interreligious marriage is not Jewish. Period! As for the wedding, you can stand under a chuppah, wear a large tallis, recite ceremonial texts, drink l’chaims, invite the non-Jew to utter Hebrew words, and break a glass, but the ceremony will remain a charade. The officiating Rabbi can impose conditions, offer counseling, and modify the rituals, but one-hundred Rabbis will not make a non-Jewish union into a Jewish marriage.

Ah, yes, intermarriage as the great assault on Judaism. We’ve seen this argument many times before. I don’t think there’s anything I can say here that would dissuade Miller. But I do think it’s a shame that he believes that “intermarriage usually occurs between people whose faith is not central to their lives, but an afterthought.” For some couples, sure, but for all? Couldn’t it also be argued that when Jews marry other Jews oftentimes their faith is an afterthought? How else would we explain the many Jewish families not marking Shabbat or celebrating holidays, not giving their children any sort of Jewish education? I’d rather see faith as an afterthought than no thought at all. But I digress.

What do you think of Miller’s arguments against admitting to rabbinical school those students who have intermarried?

Edited to add: As so quickly pointed out on our Facebook wall about this blog post, “Why are these the only two lines? Can a Reform Jew legitimately commit murder?” Other lines are listed too. And the idea of officiating weddings on Shabbat is called in too. Respond with your thoughts on Facebook, or here!

Nature vs Nurture

If you don’t receive our bi-weekly eNewsletter, you may not know that we’re looking ahead to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) in the spring. The last two editions asked for folks who are descendant of Holocaust survivors and have relatives who intermarried. If you are, we’d love to hear your stories — contact Benjamin!

Rebecca's grandfather (a German Jewish Holocaust survivor) and grandmother (an American Mormon) with their children, her mother, uncle, and aunt, in the 1960s.

My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor from Germany. My grandmother was raised Mormon in Utah. How they met, fell in love, and eventually married is a story for another time. For now I want to fast forward to the dinner table at my parents’ home last week.

A Holocaust educator, my mother often writes about the Holocaust, modern Germany, and her own life experiences in Indianapolis’ National Jewish Post and Opinion. I thought she would jump at the chance to share one more layer of her story. When I broached the subject with her, her response was (with what sounded like a tone of offense) “I don’t consider myself to have been raised in an interfaith family.” I was surprised that she sounded so offended.

Earlier this week I was in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to visit with my mom’s older sister. I met her at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, where she volunteers twice a month. I perused the museum as she finished her shift and then we went to dinner. Usually we see each other at a family reunion or life cycle event. Finding time for a 1:1 conversation in these settings is next to impossible; this was the first time we had a chance to speak as adults.

I told my aunt about the note in our eNewsletter and she said she’d be interested in writing. I then told her my mom’s response and she replied, “Of course we were an interfaith family!” I was shocked! One sibling considers her family to be interfaith while the other doesn’t.

To break the tie, I emailed my uncle. He responded,”Well, the short answer is that ‘Of course we were an interfaith family.’ Not only did we visit cousins in Utah who were still Mormon (even if not fervent in their practice), but my mother frequently invited the Mormon missionaries, who were working in our home town, over for dinner. I even went to Europe one summer with a group that was mostly Mormon. My mother somehow hooked us up with this group and she served as one of the chaperones. Imagine going to the Moulin Rouge at the age of 15 and sitting at a table with your mother!” (Or, for that matter with a group of Mormon missionaries!)

He continues, “I think I know more about the Mormon religion than most other Christian religions… My Mom was very involved with the Jewish organizations, and we observed all the holidays. I have a theory that when it comes to religion, when people of different faiths marry, those with strong backgrounds tend to find one another, more so than people of the same religion who came from opposite ends of the observance spectrum.”

My grandparents made a lot of great decisions about how they would raise their children, weighing both how much German and Jewish influence, as well as how much American and Mormon influence, would permeate their household. In the end, they raised three fantastic children. I suppose my take-away is that parents have a lot of power. They nurture each child. But eventually it’s the children who decide who they are, how they identify, and what role religion (which religion) has in their lives. How you define yourself is ultimately up to you.

Grandparenting in Interfaith Families

Are you a Jewish grandparent navigating your relationship with your child, their partner, and your grandchild? GrandmaAre you the adult, sandwiched between your parent and your young child, respecting the one who raised you and hoping they will respect your choices in raising your own family? I am curious what works (and what doesn’t work). Please comment below and join me as we start a dialogue about the role of grandparents!

I believe step one should be to have a conversation. The grandparent should sit down with their adult child and discuss how each sees the other’s role. Share thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Respect each other. Recognize that this can be easier said than done!

But then what? Grandparents: what do you do (have you done) that has worked really well? What didn’t work so well that you would do differently next time? Children, what have your parents done that worked (or didn’t)? What do you wish they would do?

I have five ideas to get us started; I’m interested to hear if you think these will be well received.Grandparents

  • Celebrate a Jewish holiday with the other grandparents. For example, invite them to the Passover seder (along with your child’s family). Include them in your religious/cultural celebrations. Help them better understand Judaism and its rich traditions.
  • Ask your child if they need support, resources, or guidance from you. Offer to assist them in the choices that they make. Being active in the Jewish community can be expensive; if you are in a position to help, offer to pay for religious school or summer camp (if your assistance would be appreciated).
  • Offer to babysit, but make sure you’re transparent with your plans. Tell your child that you’d like to invite your grandchildren over for dinner on Friday night, light Shabbat candles, say the blessings, and enjoy a wonderful meal together. Attain quality time with your grandchildren and give their parents the night off for their own quality time together!
  • Be visible in your grandchild’s life. Visit often if you can. Use modern technology like Skype to see and talk to your family if they live far away (or even if they are around the corner).
  • Keep the dialogue open.

What would you like to add to this list?

Are Attitudes Towards Intermarriage Changing, Revisited

Almost three years ago, in April 2010, I complimented the Forward’s Editor-at-Large, for an essay he wrote about a family member’s bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue. I said then,

It is heartening to me for a thought leader of J.J. Goldberg’s stature to say that it felt natural and necessary for a non-Jewish parent to be an integral part of the celebration of raising a Jewish child, to question “how many other parents don’t bring their children into the covenant because they think — correctly, all too often — they won’t be welcomed,” and to give praise (very well-deserved, in my opinion) to [a rabbi] who “dared to open [his community's] gates as few other rabbis have done.”

When more Jewish leaders recognize that Goldberg’s cousin’s family — with an unconverted non-Jewish parent participating in raising a Jewish child — is not sub-optimal, but instead is a positive Jewish outcome equal to any other — then we will have a truly “changing Judaism.” I hope Goldberg’s essay will help move us in that direction.

Unfortunately, Goldberg’s current essay, How Many American Jews Are There?, makes me wonder about progress. In an otherwise fine and thoughtful discussion of Jewish population estimates, Goldberg mentions “certain new discoveries that are changing our understanding of how Jews view themselves that aren’t fully absorbed into survey methodology.” One of them is, “there’s a growing, still unmeasured tendency among children of intermarriage to identify as Jewish” — something that could certainly be taken as very positive.

Sadly, however, Goldberg adds: “perhaps because it’s fashionable in Washington and Hollywood.” Why the gratuitous slap at children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish? Does Goldberg think his cousin, who impressed him so much at his bar mitzvah three years ago, identifies as Jewish because it’s fashionable?

This follows on the Forward’s Editor-in-Chief, Jane Eisner, writing For 2013, A Marriage Agenda. In an otherwise fine and thoughtful discussion of marriage and birth rates, she gratuitously mentions being “haunted” by whether marriage-age children will marry other Jews — again with no recognition whatsoever of the potential for positive Jewish engagement that could result.

I would hope that leading Jewish journalists like Goldberg and Eisner would like to contribute to attracting young interfaith couples to engage in Jewish life and community. Making gratuitous negative comments about intermarriage doesn’t help.

Interfaith Rollercoaster

I recently attended the symposium called “Interfaith Rollercoaster: Navigating the Challenges, Enjoying the Ride,” sponsored by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA and their Interfaith Relationship Dialogue. It was a great opportunity for sharing ideas and solutions for couples and families in our communities.

I attended the workshop “Out of the Mouths of Babes: Young Adults Share Their Experience of Growing Up Interfaith.” The teens on this panel had varying perspectives, but were all raised interfaith and were members at the synagogue hosting the event. It was fascinating to hear about their experiences. One panelist discussed her relationship with her grandparents who aren’t Jewish, including their attitudes toward elements of Judaism. The teen remarked how she enjoyed teaching her grandparents about the various holidays.

At the workshop entitled “Managing Your In-Laws,” the facilitator introduced the concept that managing our in-laws is not really what we need to do — we need to learn to manage ourselves. One suggestion was to manage our own issues by prioritizing them into three baskets: “A,” really important; “B,” negotiable; and “C,” doesn’t really matter. The strategy is to have a small “A” basket and try to put more issues in the “C” basket. I found this to be a great tool to manage all aspects of life beyond the issues raised in an intermarriage or interfaith family.

During discussion groups, it was great to hear how everyone is addressing similar items over the course of their marriage. Many couples go through the same things, but have a varying array of solutions and compromises. What was really gratifying was that many members of the congregation said that the rabbi was always learning new perspectives. The rabbi discussed this with the group, saying that he was often revisiting concepts and frequently revising his opinion. This was very refreshing and encouraging to all attendees.

My favorite story from Anita Diamant, the keynote speaker, was when she told us about a man who was Catholic but celebrates all of the High Holidays with his wife and daughters. He said that he was “Jew-ish.” The symposium was a wonderful model for sharing that would be beneficial for any interfaith community.

To read more about it, check out this article from the Jewish Exponent.