Insights on Engaging Interfaith Families from the NY Community Study

The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, has important findings for all those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

The study confirms that there is a huge amount of intermarriage, and it is continuing. Between 2006 and 2011, one in three non-Orthodox Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish (a 33% individual rate of intermarriage); 50% of the non-Orthodox couples formed were intermarried couples (a 50% couples rate of intermarriage) (135).1 Twelve percent of the children (age 0 to 17) in Jewish households — 50,000 children — are in intermarried households (183).

The study reports that 31% of the children of intermarried households are raised Jewish and 11% are raised “Jewish and something else,” while 13% have parents who are undecided and 46% are raised not Jewish (180-81).2 A goal of having more than 50% of intermarried parents raise their children Jewish is reachable — if the undecided parents and the parents raising their children Jewish and something else can be influenced towards more Jewish choices.

The tone of much of the study follows an approach consistently taken in the past by Steven M. Cohen, the study’s principal author, that lumps together all intermarried couples and then highlights their relatively low levels of Jewish engagement when compared to all in-married couples. The policy implications of this approach are that it is not worth making efforts to engage interfaith couples. A different approach, which compares those intermarried couples who are Jewishly engaged with in-married couples, highlights their relatively comparable levels of Jewish engagement; the policy implications of that approach, which is reflected to a degree in the study, are to make efforts to move more intermarried couples to Jewish engagement.

For example, the study reports that the children of intermarried households receive relatively little Jewish education — only 35% are sent to supplemental school; but of the 15% of intermarried households that are synagogue members, 90% send their children to supplemental school. The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to become synagogue members — and the study does say, somewhat reluctantly, “Perhaps expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing” (28).

For another example, of intermarried households that are raising their children exclusively Jewish, 54% score high or very high on the study’s index of Jewish engagement (182).3 The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to raise their children as Jews — and the study does say that the fact that 13% of intermarried parents are undecided about how they are raising their children “suggest that communal efforts to engage intermarried couples should support efforts to raise Jewish children” (28).

For another example, the study reports that the intermarried are less engaged because they have fewer Jewish social connections, with 77% of those age 30-39 living fairly isolated from other Jews — but adds, “These patterns suggest one approach: connect the intermarried socially to other Jews” (162).

The study’s authors ask an important question: “To what extent has the Jewish community made progress in closing the engagement gap associated with intermarriage?” Comparing their findings to those of the 2002 community study, they conclude that the intermarried (again lumped all together) became more distant when compared to the in-married (140). Given the negligible communal efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly since 2002, the lack of progress should not be a surprise.

The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”

But a related finding exposes widespread negative attitudes about intermarriage that potentially result in disinviting, unwelcoming behavior: high percentages of parents say they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. While 6% of intermarrieds and 12% of converts would be upset, 56% of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset. Feeling that the fact of their relationship is a cause of upset in a community is a factor likely to discourage a couple from engaging with that community.

Sensing negative communal attitudes may explain why more intermarried households make charitable contributions exclusively to non-Jewish causes, and fewer give to Jewish causes (203-05) — and the study does suggest “experiment[ing] with new ways of connecting with those who seem the most disconnected from communal Jewish philanthropy — [including] intermarried households” (30).

The fact that people go where they feel welcomed is supported by another study finding, namely a significant shift of Conservative Jews to Reform, which clearly has been perceived as the more hospitable movement for the intermarried. Of all Jews raised Conservative, 29% now identify as Reform; of all now Reform, 31% were raised Conservative (124).

The study has a very helpful discussion of the current context of shifting identities. It highlights fluidity, with people freely choosing identities based on relationships; malleability, with identities changing over time; and hybridity, a confluence of multiple traditions that is the ethos in American society generally (111-12) .

One aspect of hybridity briefly mentioned in the study is that in 9 of 10 intermarried households, synagogue affiliated or not, Christmas is celebrated by a household member. The study states that “In about half, it is celebrated as a religious holiday” but provides no explanation of what that means. InterfaithFamily’s eight years of December holiday surveys have consistently reported, in contrast, that high majorities of interfaith families raising their children as Jews celebrate Christmas but not as a religious holiday.

The Jewish Community Study of New York report can be found at ujafedny.org/jewish-community-study-of-new-york-201.


[1]The study may understate the amount and the Jewish engagement of what have commonly been thought of as intermarriages. Five percent of study respondents were people who had no Jewish parent and had not formally converted, but identified as “Jewish by personal choice.” A marriage between a Jew (by birth or formal conversion) and such a Jew by personal choice has up to know been thought of as an intermarriage, but the study appears to count such couples as “conversionary, in-married” — resulting in less intermarriage. Moreover, Jews by personal choice almost by definition would be more Jewishly engaged than non-Jews; if marriages involving Jews by personal choice were counted as intermarriages, that should mean more Jewish engagement by intermarried couples than this study, which treats those couples as in-married, reports.

[2]The study frequently attributes cause and effect to intermarriage while being very cautious about doing so with any other issue. Thus the study concludes that intermarriage — as opposed to other factors such as what the partners bring to the marriage — “strongly influences” whether children are raised as Jews, the Jewish engagement level of the home, and the Jewish educational choices for their children (191). In contrast, for example, on the question whether having fewer Jewish acquaintances causes less engagement, the study says “Of course, the chicken and egg here are difficult to discern. Do people with many Jewish intimates acquire and sustain Jewish engagement, or do Jewishly engaged people form and sustain Jewish friendships and family relationships?”

[3]Many of the study’s findings are organized around an index of Jewish engagement, based on twelve factors selected by the study’s authors (118), and the study frequently refers to intermarried households scoring low on that index — for example, 70% of the intermarried score low on the engagement index (142). The authors acknowledge, however, that indicators that can be undertaken individually or with friends and family, that don’t demand formal affiliation or collective action, are not included in their engagement index (119). As intermarried households are more involved with these indicators that are not included on the study’s index, their Jewish engagement is understated by the index.

Our Fathers

Originally published on the Jewish Women's Archive blog, Jewesses With Attitude. Cross-posted with permission.

In a blog post last week, Gabrielle Orcha asked, "What about the Jewish father? … Who is he really?"

[table][tr][td][/td][td]With Father's Day coming up this weekend, we wanted to start a dialogue about the Jewish fathers, or fathers (who may or may not be Jewish) of Jewish daughters. We put out a call for Jewish daughters to tell us about their fathers. We'd also like to thank the folks at Kveller.com, who took up the call and helped collect these stories.[/td][/tr][/table]

As you will see from the stories below, we learned that our fathers are Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and non-religious. However, one thing stands out in our stories: Fathers are involved and invested in the lives of their Jewish daughters as teachers, advocates, entertainers, and role models. Considering the legacy of Jewish women — their accomplishments and contributions recognized on jwa.org — we think they're doing a pretty good job.

You'll meet 12 fathers in this post. If you'd like to add a story about your father, please do so in the comments. We look forward to reading what you have to say.

My Episcopalian dad proposed to my Jewish mom on their very first date over Irish Coffee and she laughed at him. But, my dad had charm, and she agreed to go out with him again. And again. And again. And over the next eight years when he'd ask her to marry him night after night, she would shake her head and laugh. But then, one night, while stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway near the Wilshire Exit, she said "Yes." But with one condition: They would have a Jewish home." And my dad agreed. Every Friday night, we lit candles for Shabbat. He went to Torah class with our rabbi. We kept Kosher. And my dad's love for my mom allowed me to grow up in a home where I grew up loving Judaism.
-Sarah Tuttle-Singer
“What do you think is the nature of reality?” I gazed down at my untied shoelace, my skinned knee, the grass poking out of the sidewalk. “I dunno,” I shrugged. “What is it?” “There is no right answer,” my father said, his corrective shoes keeping time with my own. “But it’s our job to keep asking the question anyway.” My Daddy knows a lot, but that did not make sense. Questions should have right answers like in arithmetic.

What l did know was it was summertime. I was seven. I had 27 freckles and two little sisters and Mommy was wearing the blue shirt again that meant another sister was coming. And after supper Daddy asked just me to take a walk. In the soft Ohio dusk I was initiated into the Big Thinkers Club. That fundamentally unanswerable “nature of reality” question, one that would eventually be posed to each of his five small daughters, gifted us with the chutzpah to shake our small fists at the limits of human knowing in a deeply Jewish way. It was, more than anything else, our father’s sweetest gift.
-Deborah Fineblum Raub

My father turned 90 in February. Every day and year are special because he is a part of our lives. My mother died when I was five years old, so dad was both mom and dad to my brother and me. Growing up, and when he had grandchildren, he was more of a kid than any of us, challenging us to enjoy skiing, sledding, hiking — everything with him and making it just fun!  He is going to meet his newest great grandchild, my granddaughter Orly, next weekend and his excitement to meet and influence yet another child in the family comes through in his voice every time we are on the phone. Happy Father's Day, Dad. You are one in a million.
-Susan Raskin
My Jewish identity became official on Dec. 21, 2009, with my mikveh – and three years after I lost my Catholic father to Lou Gehrig’s disease. My Dad loved my Jewish boyfriend the minute he met him (thanks, baseball!) and his support of our relationship never waivered. I see his proud face at our wedding, our son’s bris, our daughter’s baby naming. He did worry about our children not having “Santa,” but that didn’t last once he saw how much joy Judaism brought to our lives. I used to think I would never convert, but after I lost my Dad to a terrible disease, I knew I was ready. I had begun the journey and didn’t know it. He gave me a foundation of faith as a child, and a foundation of support for the path I chose for my family.
-Michelle Breier
My dad is my rav. While he is not a rabbi, he is the one who opened my heart to the beauty of Torah. I remember participating in minyan as a 10 year old, looking up at my father beaming with pride. It is because of my father that I am now going to become a rabbi. My dad’s passion for learning and living Judaism permeated my childhood experiences. My parents moved us to Israel, heightening our awareness of what it meant to be part of Am Yisrael. Years have passed, but our relationship grows tighter as we bond over our shared love: the love of our tradition. My dad introduced me to what it meant to be a committed, dedicated, and loving Jewish person. He is generous, kind, and smart.  As I become a rabbi this year, the ten-year-old inside will look up and smile. Thank you Dad, for instilling in me the love of tradition, Judaism, and Israel. I love you.
-Dani Gobuty Eskow
My father has always been a great father. Involved, loving, interfering when my mother has been impossible with me and my sister.  Insisting in the 60's that I be allowed to go march in the Vietnam Moratoriums, insisting I travel in Europe with my boyfriend after high school because it would broaden my world view. Sticking up for my sister and me when my mother is being critical. My father was a wonderful son and son-in-law, a loving brother, uncle, and friend. He talks to everyone, cab drivers and scholars alike. He reads news constantly and listens before he states his opinion. I am blessed to have the father I do. And my uncles and grandfather were also loving gentle Jewish men.
-Marci Mitler
One night when my father was about ten years old, he came downstairs looking for his mother. He paused at the top of the cellar steps. In the basement, he saw his parents and his maternal grandfather savoring a local delicacy — Chesapeake Bay oysters. In later years, my father would say that this night in 1933 marked the end of any real feeling he had for Judaism. He loved and respected his grandfather, a successful self-made businessman who was a pillar of the shul where my father would be bar mitzvahed and confirmed. But even as a ten-year-old, he knew hypocrisy when he saw it.

Still, my father never failed to make a generous contribution to the Associated Jewish Charities every year; he was famous for his skill at telling Jewish jokes, and without ever using the words, he instilled a strong sense of tikkun olam in his sons (two) and daughters (two). Did he make the connection between the importance he placed on service to the community — a value he both lived and passed on — and his Jewish heritage? I wish I had asked him.
-Ellen K. Rothman

My father came from a large, Jewish family of extremely humble origins who lived in Kalisz, Poland. He quit school at the age of eight in order to help keep his family alive. He sold candy to street people, worked in a coal mine, repaired bicycles, worked as a fur piecer and madebatteries for cars. Eventually he became one of the top Schiffli embroidery manufacturers in northern New Jersey. He loved to work with his hands and worked to make things better for his wife and family.

Ten years ago, at the age of 76, he told me that if he died tomorrow he would die a happy man. He loved his life … every minute of it. He could ride a unicycle, crack a walnut with his bare hands, and extinguish a candle with his fingers and and some spit. He enjoyed golfing, swimming, taking long walks on the beach, and watching nature documentaries (the bane of my mother's existence "Ugh, disgusting…I'm going upstairs"). He loved the mountains, the ocean, not to mention his wife, family, and friends. Max Smulen was a simple, beautiful, unpretentious, and humble man who took whatever card life dealt him. Luckily he was dealt a Royal Flush.
-Terry Ann Smulen

My dad is the son of Holocaust survivors, and for him, that is the basis of what it means to be Jewish. Growing up, my mom was the one who took us to shul. "Why doesn't Dad have to go?" we would whine. When I asked my dad if he believed in God, he would only repeat what his own parents told him: "If there is a God, I'd give him a zetz." But for him Judaism wasn't about belief. It was about family and community. It was about tradition and learning. It was about bagels and lox. I think I've always been an atheist, but thanks to my dad's strong Jewish identity, it never felt like a contradiction to be atheist and Jewish, and I am extremely grateful for this.

In recent years, my dad has gotten more and more involved with our synagogue. He still doesn't attend services except on the High Holidays, but these days he takes adult ed classes, attends lectures, and soaks up everything he can about Judaism, Jewish history, and Torah. I'm inspired by his Jewish journey, which reminds me daily that belief is not a prerequisite for engagement with Jewish life.
-Leah Berkenwald

My father chose my name, and that cemented my connection to Judaism. He named me after his mother, Pruva, who died in Auschwitz. The “American” version of my name is Preeva, and it is on my birth certificate. Daddy took to me shul on Friday nights, and we came early so he could talk to his friends and show me off a little: He would say: “Preeva, explain your name.” And I would straighten my dress, and recite: “When God created man, on the sixth day he said to him, Pru U'Rvu Ee melu et ha'aretz, be fruitful and multiply and develop the earth. From that comes Pruva, which we pronounce here in America, Preeva.” He set an example for me by putting on t’fillin every morning before work, even when he worked on Saturday. He also took me to the Wailing Wall in 1968 and blessed me there. Unfortunately, he died when I was 16, but I turned out well. I was just named president of Etz Chayim, an independent liberal synagogue in Palo Alto, and I am working on a book about the facts of his life.
-Preeva Tramiel
My Jewish father is the one who has always taught me how to use his tools — many of which he has gifted to me, how to fix things, and how to make homemade horseradish. I know he is preparing me for the day when he is no longer with me and I love him for this. At age 91, his life is a blessing to me and I am grateful for every bit of wisdom he imparts to me, his oldest daughter.
-Sue Kelman
My zaidy was a Holocaust survivor. After coming to America, he rebuilt the life he had lost. On a literal level, he was a carpenter, so he built storefronts for a living. My zaidy worked hard to support his family, waking up at 5:30 a.m. in order to pray and get to the shop on time. He instilled Jewish values in his two daughters, taking them with him to synagogue every Shabbat and holiday and putting them both through Jewish day schools. Although I was not privileged to meet my zaidy, I was given the honor of being named after him. His Hebrew name was Naftali. In Kabbalah, the name Naftali is read as nafat li, which means “sweetness is to me.” Although I can’t imagine my traditional European zaidy would wholeheartedly approve of my Jewish feminist sensibilities, I certainly hope that he is proud of me, his namesake.
-Talia Weisberg

Who Are the “Half-Jewish”?

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom.

Who are the “half Jewish?” Or is “half Jewish” like “half pregnant” – either you are, or you are not? For more than two decades, half of marriages involving Jews have been intermarriages. Today on college campuses, there are likely more students with one Jewish parent than with two. Hillels, Judaic Studies programs, and Holocaust memorial observances could be full to overflowing if the Jewish community could learn who these “heirs of intermarriage” really are and how to encourage them to explore the Jewish side of their family heritage.

The problem is that the organized Jewish community has been too slow to face this reality. This goes deeper than a welcoming approach to intermarriage ceremonies, which could start off these intercultural families on a note of welcoming rather than a feeling of rejection. Telling young adults, “I wouldn’t have married your parents” implies there is something wrong about what made them who they are. Too many still see the question of “who is Jewish” as either/or: either your mother is Jewish and thus you are, or you are not (without conversion). What if you want to be, what if you feel, what if you simply are “Jewish and…”?

We all live in many identities. I am Jewish, and a Humanistic Jew, and a rabbi, but I am also male, and a parent, and I grew up in Michigan, and I now live in the Chicago area. All of these identities exist in me simultaneously, and I cannot choose whether I am male or Jewish or Midwestern. An individual with a Jewish parent and an Irish/Italian/Latino/African American/etc. parent is unlikely to choose one or the other identity if it means they must deny, reject, or forget the other “half” of their family. These questions are not simply issues of individual identity; there are real live (and deceased) parents and grandparents and family traditions and heirlooms and memories at stake. There are almost as many varieties of “half Jewish” experiences as there are individuals. Some embrace the term while others reject it, but we all know what it means, even without Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.

This April 20-22, 2012, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism will be exploring this crucial issue at its Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Held on the Northwestern University campus in partnership with Fiedler Hillel of Northwestern University and Newberger Hillel of the University of Chicago, speakers and panelists will explore the “half Jewish” experience through qualitative and quantitative research, personal stories, and passionate debate. Voices from academia, Jewish outreach (including Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago), the arts, Hillel, Birthright Next, and Israel will discover who this population is, in all of its diversity, and how we can speak to them as they are rather than as we imagine or wish them to be.

The truth is that the question of “half Jewish” is really a question of “what does it mean to be Jewish?” I vividly remember a conversation with a Reform rabbi friend who was strongly opposed to the concept of “half Jewish.” He asked, “How can you be two religions at once that believe different things?” I responded, “Can you be half Jewish and half Korean?” And that changed the discussion. While there are some who are raising children as “both religions” (and that experience will be part of the Colloquium discussion), for many heirs of intermarriage, their connection to both sides of their family, Jewish and other, is as culture and heritage more than religious belief and practice.

In this, they are not very different from most other Jews, who do not believe everything they are supposed to believe, do not avoid the foods they are supposed to shun, or do not perform the rituals tradition commands. Large numbers of American Jews connect to Jewish culture, history, and ethnic identity more strongly than to traditional Jewish religion and religious law; they may go to synagogue twice a year, but they feel Jewish all year round because it is who they are. Why should the heirs of intermarriage be any different?

Our hope is that Colloquium 2012 – “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage is the beginning of a wider conversation that will help determine the future of the Jewish community. Will we have the courage to be open and welcoming, the courage to change our expectations for the chance of success, or will we continue the self-inflicted losses of recent Jewish demographics? Will the heirs of intermarriage find Jewish homes, and create Jewish homes with their own families, even if their homes are “Jewish and…”? The choice will be theirs, and ours.

More information on the Colloquium, including registration forms, can be found on the IISHJ website.

Writing a Religious School Pledge for All Families

From the moment I left the Kallah that we co-lead with the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

One piece that I have been giving a lot of thought to is what I would write in my religious school handbook concerning interfaith families if I were still the Director of Education at an area congregation. Religious school handbooks typically have information about snacks served (for families concerned about allergies), information about carpool and pick up lines, the school attendance policy, dress code, how to make up work if classes are missed, whether students are required to attend religious services, and expectations about behavior. None of the schools in the area seem to have a policy for working with interfaith families. Some schools felt that there does not need to be a separate policy because it isolates interfaith families as having special needs and makes them feel different than, and not part of, the community.

I think interfaith families often do have special needs and the more we are sensitive to them, and explicit about meeting their needs, the better we do at bringing all of our families into the deeper layers of what it means to really be part of the community.

Here are my thoughts about what this part of my handbook would say:   

A Pledge for All of Our Families:

We know that we have families where one parent is not Jewish and yet is living a Jewish life, creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. We know that we have families in which one parent is not Jewish and still practices a different religion and yet is supportive of the children being raised with Judaism in the home and in their lives. We know that we have families in which one parent has chosen Judaism for himself or herself  as an adult and, while not having childhood memories of Judaism, finds Judaism to be the language by which he or she understands and engages with the world personally. We know that we have families in which one or both parents grew up in interfaith homes themselves and have varying degrees of Jewish education and memories of experiencing Judaism. We have families in which both parents were born into homes of two Jewish parents and are in need of and desire a deeper Jewish education as adults. And we have families that are some combination of these descriptions and have even different layers to their religious stories. This pledge is for all of our families:

  1. We pledge to make Judaism accessible. This means that we will translate every Hebrew or Yiddish word into English. This means that we will offer adult Hebrew classes so that you can learn to read Hebrew and gain a sense of the beauty and richness of this ancient language yourself. We will offer adult education classes from the introductory level to the intermediate levels and beyond. We will offer Learner’s Services so that anybody can learn the choreography of the  Friday night and Saturday morning worship services and understand the order of the liturgy, the history of the prayers, and be able to contemplate modern meanings for us today. We will offer family education so that you can learn with your children and have Jewish experiences with your children that will touch your senses and stay with you for years to come. We will offer ways to participate in mitzvot (commandments, ethical and religious living) from rituals to our ethical mandates of social justice. We will offer ways for individuals, couples and families to fully participate with this synagogue community in all aspects of Judaism because we affirm that Jewish living adds meaning, purpose, joy and order to our lives and a sense of rootedness and connectedness that we are all seeking.
  2. We pledge to interact with the children in our religious school and Hebrew school with respect, understanding and empathy, and with an openness to hearing what their experience in our program is. When children speak about celebrating non-Jewish holidays with family members, attending church or other houses of worship with family members, talk about feeling “half and half” in terms of their religious identity, wondering aloud about Jesus or other aspects of another religion in their lives, their comments will be met with respect. Comments will not be swept under the rug, but will be addressed aloud for the class because there are others in the room wondering the same things. Discussions can be had at times that will benefit all in the room about the diversity of the Jewish community, the common threads in the families, what it means to have Judaism as part of your identity and more.
  3. We want to know our families. Please help us get to know you by sharing your own religious stories. Let us know what you “do” in your home for religion, questions you have, challenges you have, and how we can better understand where you are coming from, what’s important to you for your children to absorb in this Jewish setting, and whether we can help bring families together for deeper communal experiences.

If you are reading this and send your children to religious school, what would you think of having such a statement in your school’s handbook? If you are reading this and are in Jewish education, could you imagine using pieces of this?

October News Hodgepodge

It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

Celebrity Updates: Ivanka and Gwyneth

Despite the frequency with which I blog about them, I actually have little care about celebrities’ lives. But they keep coming up in the news, saying things of relevance to intermarriage, interfaith families, so I guess I’ll have to keep blogging…

First, mazal tov to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner on the birth of their daughter on July 17.

The AP tells us,

Kushner is the owner of the New York Observer newspaper. He and Trump wed in 2009. She converted to Judaism before the wedding.

They’ve named their daughter Arabella Rose. I’m not quite sure where the name fits on the bizarre-celeb-baby-name chart, though it’s certainly saner than “Alef” (and has been described as “exotic” by Donald Trump).

If you want to follow the goings on in the Trump/Kushner home, Ivanka’s tweeting, starting with this one from Arabella’s second day:

Jared and I are having so much fun playing with our daughter! Arabella Rose is beyond adorable. She’s truly a blessing.

The next update is about Gwyneth Paltrow, a regular feature in our interfaith celebrities column.

An =http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2016674/Gwyneth-Paltrow-Ill-raise-Apple-Moses-Jewish.htmlarticle in the Daily Mail reveals,

She once claimed that she did not believe in religion.

But now Gwyneth Paltrow has revealed she wants to raise her children in the Jewish faith, following an appearance on the ancestry programme Who Do You Think You Are

The American actress, whose late father was Jewish film producer Bruce Paltrow, was moved to discover earlier this year on the show that her family came from a long line of influential East European rabbis.

And this has inspired her to raise daughter Apple, seven, and five-year-old son Moses in a Jewish environment, she told guests of a London event hosted by Jewish charity the Community Security Trust.

Her decision is a far cry from comments she made last year about her experience of being raised as both Jewish and Christian.

‘It was such a nice way to grow up,’ she said, but later added: ‘I don’t believe in religion. I believe in spirituality. Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world.’

Gwyneth, if you need any resources for yourself, your husband or your family, we’re here for you.

Volunteering and Children of Intermarriage

There’s an interesting story in the Jewish Week, Is Volunteering Jewish?. Repair the World commissioned a “first of its kind” study of the attitudes and behaviors of young Jewish adults when it comes to volunteering. What jumped out to us was the rare finding in studies of this sort of something positive about intermarriage: “children of intermarriage are more likely than are the children of two Jewish parents to volunteer.”

One of the study authors, Fern Chertok from the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, speculates:

“We spent some time thinking about why that might be,” says Chertok. “It could be that having a non-Jewish parent and non-Jewish family members leads you to see that your needs and those of people from very different groups are not so different,” she says. “As a result, your sense of obligation is more expansive.”

Another possibility is that intermarried parents who want to encourage religious and moral development may see volunteering as something that is easy to agree on and to encourage their kids to do, she says. “It’s a nonreligious avenue to encourage passion about moral responsibility. Helping others — that’s in every religion.”

A key finding of the report is that young Jewish adults do not have a strong Jewish perspective on volunteering — they don’t see it as an extension of Jewish values and shy away from volunteering with or through Jewish organizations. Children of intermarriage reportedly are less likely to have a strong Jewish perspective on volunteering. I’m still glad to see more volunteering with less Jewish perspective by children of intermarriage, than the alternative.

TribeFest

I’m at the Las Vegas airport, waiting to return to Boston. I’m exhausted. TribeFest was exhausting. But in good way!

1280 people. Three days. Numerous sessions on a wide range of topics presented by diverse speakers. Musicians and performers. And, this being Vegas, free drinks at every turn. 

I was there representing InterfaithFamily.com. We had a booth in the Big Show (this being a conference for young adults in the Jewish community, everything was supposed to sound cool and hip – exhibition hall doesn’t make the cut). And I ran a session on interfaith issues. 

I spent a lot of time at our booth. I met some great folks and was able to talk about the importance of welcoming interfaith families into the Jewish community. 

Most of the conversations fell into one of two themes:

First, there were the people in interfaith relationships, or those who had grown up in interfaith families. They wanted to tell me their stories, ask for advice on how to talk to their parents about their partners, and wanted to have their views affirmed – that dating someone who wasn’t Jewish would not make them less Jewish. I listened, made suggestions, and fully agreed. I heard great stories about being Jews by choice, about raising Jewish children and choosing not to convert to Judaism, and how through their non-Jewish partners’ interest in Judaism they had become more educated in our religion and had taken on more Jewish religious practices. 

Second, I heard from representatives of many communities across North America. They each presented their case as unique, but it was always the same: they know there are a lot of interfaith families in their communities but they don’t know how to reach out to them, make their communities more inclusive. So I reassured them that they were not alone in their struggle and made suggestions. We brainstormed together, talked about language of inclusion, and how to post events on our Network. Above all, we talked about how this couldn’t be the only time they spent thinking about this issue, that time (and resources) should be dedicated to making sure all of our Jewish communities are welcoming. 

I also led a session on interfaith issues, where we talked about many of those same topics. 

The bottom line is that Federations, I think, are starting to realize that there’s a large part of the Jewish community that needs to be more fully embraced. That instead of turning our backs on a Jew who marries outside our religion, we should be embracing their spouse and family too. I might be leaving Vegas, and most of the 1280 others have already left, but I’m pleased that the conversations won’t end here. 

What They Brought Back

We’re on a bit of a Birthright kick today.

Have you seen this new anthology, What We Brought Back?  Edited by Wayne Hoffman, it’s a collection of essays by folks who have gone on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. And it’s not just a look at what happened during their 10-day trip. Rather, it looks at what was happening in their lives that made them think that a 10-day trip would be a good idea and what’s been happening since they returned.

In other words, we’re looking at the impact:

Where the trip came in their Jewish journeys. Was it a turning point, was it a confirmation, was it a change, was it an about face on their Jewish journeys as young people?

Unsurprisingly, as Birthright accepts all young Jews with at least one Jewish parent, some of the contributors to the book are from interfaith families.  They, along with all of the contributors, wrote personal essay and poems and shared photographs.

One story is of love, conversion and wondering how a Jew by choice feels about claiming a “birthright.” Another reflects on how laughter is a common thread between the Jewish and Catholic sides of a family. A third sets the tone by sharing, with amusement, the difficulty Midwesterners have when they see the author’s name in writing.

An author (performer) familiar to us at InterfaithFamily.com is also included, Ruby Marez.  She reflects on her interfaith and interracial background, and what it means in terms of Jewish identity.

Anyway, it’s worth a read. Pick it up.

And if I haven’t convinced you, check out the book reading at Strand Bookstore on Youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HDOoeZMF_I ">http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HDOoeZMF_I " type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="400" height="325">

(Click for parts 2, 3, and 4.)

Hodge Podge!

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about intermarriage, interfaith Jews and the eternal “who is a Jew” debate. Some of it was spurred by the attack on Rep. Giffords, and the Jewish community’s near unanimous response that, yes, she is Jewish. (See, for example, Julie Wiener’s recent column in The Jewish Week, Is Anyone Jewish Enough?)

But that wasn’t the only source of news this week. So cuddle up with a mug of hot cocoa, stay warm and watch the snowstorms move in while you read another hodge podge:

An article in the Jewish Exponent looked at bullying in the Jewish community, specifically in Jewish schools.

Even if violence is minimal, day school students said that doesn’t make the emotional or mental abuse any easier to bear.

“It’s worse for us because our cliques can’t be based on color or race, so instead, it goes a little bit deeper,” Becca Richman, 16, a junior at Barrack Hebrew Academy, said during a discussion on bullying at an Anti-Defamation League youth leadership conference in late November.

Since everyone shares the same ethnicity, students might discriminate over whether someone is overly observant, not observant enough, from an intermarried family, homosexual, wealthy and so forth, her classmates added.

Read more from Taking Bullying by the Horns to see how the problem is being addressed.

Meanwhile, the religion blog in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, linked to a story on Intermarriage, the law of return and the modern Israeli state. It might be interesting to you to read some of the proposals Israel has for dealing with intermarriage, people who are “Jewish enough” to move to Israel but not “Jewish enough” to be considered Jewish for marriage. (I will add the disclaimer that when I read the line, “One brave exception is Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a member of the Knesset from the Shas political party.” I had to fight the urge to stop reading…)

Now, I wouldn’t normally share an article (Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match) that boasts an OU (Orthodox Union) approved dating site, but I how else would I have learned about intermarriage statistics for the Jewish Deaf community?

In the past, the rate of intermarriage among the deaf was close to 60%.

Another article looking at the “who’s a Jew” question in Israel focuses instead on Y.B., a 23-year-old would-be convert to Judaism (he was raised Jewish, has a non-Jewish mother) who is gay.

The soldier’s experience highlights the plight that gay would-be converts to Judaism face in Israel: Because there is no separation of state and religion, and the state religion is regulated by the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, it is practically impossible for an openly gay person to convert to Judaism. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a would-be convert who rejects a tenet of the Torah — in this case, the prohibition against homosexual intercourse — cannot join the faith.

And:

An IDF spokesman denied that Y.B. was expelled from the course because he is gay.

“The IDF believes that a person’s origin, gender and sexual orientation cannot have an impact on his or her ability to appropriately complete the conversion process,” the spokesman said in response to a JTA query. “The soldier in question chose to leave the course of his own accord because, as he noted, ‘He did not feel ready to complete the conversion process.’ The soldier was clearly informed he could return to the course when he felt ready to do so.”

Y.B. says that during his meeting with conversion course officials, he signed a form saying he was not ready to complete the process only because he was told he could not continue to study if he indeed was gay. The stipulation given for his return would be based on his agreeing to pursue relationships with women, Y.B. says he was told.

Soldier’s story highlights plight facing gay would-be converts in Israel is an interesting read. It made me wonder if there are other cases of soldiers being ousted from converting for not following one of the commandments. Have people been ousted for carrying outside an eruv on Shabbat? For wearing shatnez (fabric containing both wool and linen)?

So that’s some food for thought… Let us know what you think!