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Hi, Iâm Rabbi Jillian Cameron, the director ofÂ InterfaithFamily/Boston. While many people have at least some idea of what a rabbi in a synagogue does, my work might seem a bit more mysterious; I thought Iâd provide some clarity, in case what I do could coincide with your work or your life.
InterfaithFamilyÂ is a national organization dedicated to connecting interfaith couples and families to Jewish life in whatever way is comfortable.
Right off the bat, you might be wondering how we define âinterfaith.â Well, for our work, âinterfaithâ means a couple or family where one person identifies as Jewish and one person identifies as something other than Jewish. As you might imagine, there are a lot of different combinations this loose definition can make, from families who are very connected to their respective religions, to couples who struggle with their connection to religion, to everything and anything in between.
Of course, this adds a complication because not everyone likes and identifies with the term âinterfaith.â I often use the words âintercultural,â âmulti-faithâ and âdiverse,â among several more, just in case those better align with a coupleâs identity.
When all is said and done, no matter how a couple or family might define themselves, if they are interested in exploring any facet of Judaism, from just dipping in a toe, to jumping in completely, it is my job and my passion to help them find a way in.
One of the best parts of my work is listening to everyoneâs storiesâI mean everyone, from children of intermarriage, to the couple themselves, to their parents or grandparents, extended family and even friends. While interfaith families and couples are often viewed through the lens of statistics, I have found there is such beautiful and significant diversity in each personal journey and story. So I listen, informally compiling this important narrative of the Boston Jewish community, and then I try to help, using all my resources: knowledge of all that exists here in Boston that could be of interest, welcoming communities, events that coincide with existing interests, other Jewish professionals and organizations who are creatingÂ amazing things, classes to take and more.
Sometimes what a couple needs is just to talk to me, to work through questions they have individually and as a couple about the role of religion in their lives, as they are thinking about moving in together, or are getting married, having children, dealing with loss or great joys. Sometimes interfaith couples are interested in finding other similar couples to talk with, hear how they have made decisions and perhaps not feel like they are the only ones like them out there. This is why I created InterfaithFamily/Bostonâs Coffee & Conversation, a once-a-month informal gathering for interfaith couples at Bostonâs best coffee shops. (For our next date and location, clickÂ here.)
Other times, a couple or family is looking for a rabbi to officiate at a lifecycle event. Helping to connect the right rabbi with a couple or family is another piece of my work. InterfaithFamily has aÂ national clergy referral service, providing information for interfaith-friendly Jewish clergy around the country. In Boston, sometimes itâs me, but there are a wealth of local rabbis and cantors who are proudly on our list and who create incredibly meaningful lifecycle moments for so many interfaith families and couples. While youâre onÂ our website, you can also check out the plethora of resources we have, like guides for lifecycles and holidays, and a whole host of stories from people we have encountered since our creation in 2002.
The Boston Jewish community is a special one, both in its makeup and offerings. Organizations and professionals work together, support each other and create incredible things in partnership. I work to create interesting, fun, creative and intellectual programming with any number of other Jewish organizations, as well as help those same organizations think more deeply about the diverse population that might walk through their door. I want the Jewish community to continue to be innovative, relevant and welcoming and engaging to all.
I love being a rabbi and I especially love being a rabbi who works at InterfaithFamily in Boston. If Iâve piqued your interest, if you would like to hear more about what we do, if you want to tell me your story, if you want to explore Judaism, if youâre looking for a good cup of coffee and a good listener, Iâm here and more than happy to help in whatever way I can.
Reprinted with permission from JewishBoston.com
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Editor’s note:Â InterfaithFamily is heartbroken over the recent loss of longtime supporter Jonathan Woocher. He made an incredible and lasting impact on our organization and the greater Jewish community for which we are forever grateful.
The Jewish world has lost a truly remarkable leader with the death of Jonathan Woocher on July 7. Many tributes and memories can be found on JonâsÂ Facebook page, aÂ statementÂ from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah which he led and more recently served as Senior Fellow, aÂ JTA story in the Forward, aÂ statementÂ from the Jewish Federations of North America, onÂ eJewishPhilanthropy, and more.
In addition to being one of the smartest and most enlightened thinkers in the Jewish world, what stood out most about Jon Woocher to me was how kind and supportive he was, of me personally, and of the work of InterfaithFamily. Looking through my old email I find that as early as 2005, when I asked Jon for help to make IFFâs first new hire since it was founded in 2002, he said âvery nice â kol hakavodâ and had helpful suggestions to offer, as he did several times over the years in connection with other hires and potential funders and partners.
Jon replied to one of our regular updates in 2008 with âincredibly impressiveâ and again, what must have been a favorite phrase, âkol hakavod.â When we launched InterfaithFamily/Chicago in 2011 as our first direct service, on-the-ground operation, Jon said âWow!Â This is great news. Mazal tov and yasher koach. I look forward to seeing this initiative unfold.â In response to a 2014 report from Jodi Bromberg, Jon said âWhat an exciting report. Kol hakavod to you, Ed, and the staff and Board for continuing to build on IFFâs solid base. Itâs gratifying to see how many communities are now recognizing the valuable contribution IFF can make on the ground locally.â
All of this encouragement might not seem particularly special, as many people have commented on how supportive Jon was to them. But the difference is that the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly has not been a popular one. I often felt I was knocking my head against walls. Support from Jon Woocher, such a highly regarded scholar and professional, meant a great deal to me â it inspired me to keep working to advance the issue. And when the issue finally started to get more positive attention, Jon was there to help, gracing the October 2016 Interfaith Opportunity Summit as a panelist.
In 2015 when a group of leaders issued their Statement on Jewish Vitality,Â J.J. Goldberg wrote in theÂ ForwardÂ that the two main criticisms (though for different reasons) were from me and from Jon. I told Jon I felt that I had been elevated into really good company. In his typical humble way, he said he liked the company he was in, too â but truly I was the one who was honored to be mentioned along with him.
My recollection is that the first time I ever spoke to Jon, he mentioned that his wife Sherry thought highly of InterfaithFamilyâs content and used it in her own work. I am sending my very sincere condolences and sympathy to Sherry and her family on their terrible loss.
Postscript July 11: You can read Joe Kanferâs incredibly meaningful eulogyÂ here.
IÂ applaudedÂ in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movementâs 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 movementâs 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 âin,â as part of âus,â as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as âout,â âother,â not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person âisâ Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to âdoâ Jewish.
Itâs 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, âitâs wonderful that your daughter has a partner â but wouldnât you prefer that she were straight?â No, he wouldnât, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and Iâve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said âis she Jewishâ? right in front of my daughterâs 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 âsub-optimal.â
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children arenât âreallyâ Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like âger toshavâ 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 donât want their childrenâs status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more âinâ or âoutâ 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 âusâ 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 Centerâs 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 synagogueâs clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCARâs 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. Thatâs 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 âdo both.â 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 ânoâ for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most wonât 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 havenât decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we donât have to recommend or favor raising children as âboth,â 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 donât 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?
Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgoveâs article in the New York Jewish Week, âMikveh Can Solve Conversion Problemâ and Rabbi Shaul Magidâs article in The Forward âWhy Conversion Lite Wonât Fix The Intermarriage Problem.âÂ Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word âproblem.â
I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isnât the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposedâin fact, I often donât 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 wasnât Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word âproblemâ 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 âarguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewryâ). 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 marriagesâthe Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different backgroundâare also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, weâve 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 theyâre a problem. So, hereâs a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, letâs stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.
Throughout the four years that Iâve 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, Iâve been especially sensitive to the language thatâs used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. Iâm constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who arenât Orthodox. We hear about the âproblemsâ and âchallengesâ of interfaith relationships and we see classes on âthe December Dilemmaâ and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.
Iâm proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesnât 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 âthe December Dialogueâ or âthe December Discussion.â
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 opportunityâan 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 itâs 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 thatâs meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.
As a kid, my mother taught us to put an orange on the seder plate as an act of feminism. Around that same time, she gave me a hot pink T-shirt with rainbow sparkle letters that read, âAnything boys can do, girls can do better.â It was the â80s and my passions for girl power, rainbows and Jewish rituals were ignited.
My mom, and many other feminists, passed on the famous origin story of the orange, that Dr. Susannah Heschel was lecturing in Miami, and, while she was speaking of feminism,Â an Orthodox man supposedly shouted that “a woman belongs on the bimah [pulpit] as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.â And so, as feminists, we all added the orange as an act of resistance; a symbol of women’s rights.
But, alas, that story that I had heard and retold for decades was a myth
(IFF/Philadlephiaâs Rabbi Robyn Frisch discusses the myth here). And while I was studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I was quite surprised as the story was debunked by my rabbi and I learned what REALLY happened.
It was the 1980s, and Heschel was speaking at the Hillel Jewish student group at Oberlin College. While there, she came across a Haggadah written by a student that included a story of a young girl who asks her rabbi if there is room in Judaism for a lesbian. The rabbi in the story replies in anger, âThereâs as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate!ââimplying that lesbians are impure and are a violation of Judaism.
The next year, Heschel put an orange on her seder plate and shared that she chose the orange âbecause it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.â
The seeds of the orange, like other items on the seder plate, symbolize rebirth and renewal. And some folks have taken on the tradition of spitting the seeds to remind us to spit out the hatred experienced by all marginalized members of our communities.
Since the addition of the orange, other symbols have been added to the traditional seder plate (watch our fun video guide for what to put on a seder plate). Some vegetarians and vegans have added a âpaschal yam,â in place of the shank bone, which traditionally represents the paschal lamb. Others have included olives for peace in the Middle East. And some have placed potato peels on their plates to commemorate Jews who starved during the Holocaust.
Most recently I learned that members of Rabbis For Human Rights, who work to support the under-paid and over-worked tomato pickers in Florida, have included a tomato as a symbol of contemporary slavery.
âWe who believe in FREEDOM, cannot rest until it comes.â This year, as I prepare to lead the Passover seder for my family and friends, I am emboldened to add these various symbols to our plate as reminders of who is not free. What segments of my community are still enslaved? What human rights issues must be addressed?
I am empowered to take action and commit to do the social justice work to bring equality and dignity to everyone. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., âNo one is free until we are all free.â
I recently got introduced to a childrenâs book called Zero by Kathryn Otoshi. Itâs a book aimed at preschoolers, but adults will also love it. In the book, Zero feels left out of the counting that all the other numbers get to do. They have value as counted numbers, but Zero doesnât. She tries to impress those numbers with little success and even tries to look like them. Zero then realizes that she can convince the other numbers that if they add her on, they will count as a higher number. With Zero, they became 10, 20, 30, 100 and more. After reading this book, my kids and I were prompted to a discussion about how it feels to be left out and how sometimes we want to dress like someone else or act like someone else to fit in.
As the story of Zero unfolded, my interfaith family inclusion buzzer went right off! (This happens to me quite often.) It reminded me of a talk I heard earlier this year at Temple Sholom that was sponsored by A Wider Bridge. The talk was given by the leaders of The Aguda, an Israeli NationalÂ LGBT Task Force.Â They shared about a tour they did in LA of one of the largest LGBTQ agencies in the world. When they asked an agency executive about where their work would be headed in the next 10 or 15 years, the executive responded that maybe they can work themselves out of a job in the decades to come. The Aguda leaders thought this was a sad answer because they believe it will take years to win legal equal rights across all areas that touch LGBTQ people in America and internationally. It might take just as long to bring about cultural acceptance including ending homophobic and transphobic discrimination. The Aguda leaders hope that when that day comes, there would be many more agencies and organizations devoted to LGBTQ people because communities around the globe would feel incomplete without the overt contributions that queer people would bring. In other words, queer people and their varied lenses of life would add essential value to leadership positions, boards and councils in all professions.
To me, the same is true when it comes to interfaith family inclusion in Jewish life. Congregations need to find ways to support couples around lifecycle events, especially weddings. They may also need to translate Hebrew so that people reading their website or sitting in services will have a more meaningful experience. Classes should be offered so that people who need a refresher or a first-time explanation have ways to learn. Rabbis need to share stories during family Shabbat gatherings that represent same-sex parents, single parents, interfaith families, gender non-confirming children and racially diverse families.
Congregations should look at membership forms, school enrollment materials and written ritual policy statements to make sure they are inclusive and sensitive. It will go far when congregants acknowledge the gift a parent who didnât grow up with Judaism is giving to help raise children with Judaism. It is wonderful when the parent who isnât Jewish can be referred to in the positive (rather than just ânon-Jew,â) as someone who is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, secular and so forth, along with the other parts of their identity like activist, volunteer, their profession, etc.
For families like mine, where both partners are Jewish, and for Jewish professionals, the main lesson from Zero is that we need to realize people from different backgrounds in our communities enrich our expression of Judaism. Inclusion of people who didnât grow up with Judaism should be seen as equal to those of us who did grow up with Judaism, and the gazillions of complicated amalgamations in between help us all count more. A diverse community adds energy, creativity, beauty and depth to this ancient and always dynamic civilization of Judaism.
Thank you to Zero for reminding me of this sacred goal.
Anti-Semitic acts have been happening in our country every day for the past couple of months. And every day I get asked the same question, âWhy should I be Jewish?â
To be Jewish is to accept the challenges along with the joys. To have Jewish heritage is to be born into a club of which you will always be a member, even if you choose not to engage in Jewish life. To choose to be Jewish, or to be partnered with someone Jewish, you are joining a family where you become part of its celebrations, accomplishments, disappointments, failures, challenges and tragedies.
So why choose to be part of a family with such tragic stories in the distant and not so distant past? Why wake up every day and make the choice to be part of a family that is the recipient of hateful speech and acts of terror and desecration? Why be a part of a group who sometimes seems to have more challenges than joys when, in America, you can choose to be anything?
I asked this question on Facebook and was given a lot of answers to why people choose to engage in Jewish life. But, I also received some questions:
How can you even choose?
Is it a choice to be Jewish?
Can you choose to ignore your family heritage?
What if you donât have Jewish family heritage?Â
How do you choose Judaism?
I want to add a few more questions to the above. If youâre in an interfaith relationship, why choose Judaism as your household religion, when it would be so easy to ignore or deny it? Being Jewish seems to come with all this extra baggageâwhy voluntarily carry it and ask your family to carry it?
Why do interfaith couples go out of their way to practice Judaism when being Jewish means subjecting yourself to scrutiny and possibly danger?
How about when it means sending your kid to school at a JCC or Jewish day school knowing it may get threatened and evacuated?Â Or when it means going through a metal detector for synagogue? And after all that, when it means people repeatedly tell you that youâre not really Jewish, or your familyâs not Jewish or your family and relationship is leading to the decline of Judaism? Why do interfaith couples and families keep it up?
Love of the pastâof the parent to whom Judaism was so important. Or of the grandparent who died at Dachau or Sachsen-Hausen. Or for the mother-in-law who wants so badly for your children to be Jewish.
Love of the presentâof the partner to whom Judaism is so important. The synagogue that needs your membership and participation to keep its doors open. The community that welcomes you and celebrates with you in times of joy and supports you in times of sadness. The connection you feel to other people as they navigate the journey of being Jewish in an interfaith family.
Love of the futureâto give your children a tradition and culture. For Judaism to continue, thrive and flourish. For the Jewish tradition to think of the next generation and plant the seeds of faith and community that only our children and grandchildren with see the fruit of. For the story found in a Jewish text, called the Talmud (Taâanit 23a), in which a man named Honi plants a carob tree, knowing that it will not bear fruit in his generation. When asked why he would care about a tree that wouldnât offer him any fruit, he answered, âPerhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.â This view of Jewish engagement is hope for the future.
Keeping faith in a time when you are unsure, when your people are being threatened, is an act of love. Itâs an act that transcends you and is bigger than you and your family. You find your own reasons for engaging Jewishly and having a Jewish identity. And through it all, you know thereâs a bigger reason for your family. Through the fear, threats, insults and the rejection, you stick with it and pass through your family the love you have for the past, present and future of Judaism.
Everyone has their own reasons for this love. Familial heritage may resonate with you or Jewish continuity may drive your Jewish identity. Maybe itâs the participation in community events or Jewish ritual that increases your connection with Judaism. In a world where anti-Semitism is part of our daily lives and freedom of religion is part of our society, people have a choice how they identify with Judaism.Â I hope you will find your own reason for being in the family as you #ChooseLove each day.
Why do you #ChooseLove and choose Judaism? Share in the comments.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.
First, I was so pleased to learn that Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.
Thatâs right â an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: âAt RomemuÂ theÂ diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.âÂ I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the âStrangers No Moreâ program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.
But thereâs more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.
Second, and about the same time, the JTA ran an important and I think related story by Ben Sales, Outside the Synagogue, Intermarried are Forming Community With Each Other. He writes that interfaith couples are finding Jewish connection through a range of initiatives aimed at intermarried or unaffiliated couples, mentioning Honeymoon Israel and Circles of Welcome at the JCC Manhattan, among others.
Julie Wiener just wrote a great short history of the intermarriage debate for MyJewishLearning.com â one of her subtitles is âFrom Taboo to Commonplaceâ â that alludes to interfaith families finding community in new and alternative forms of organization when discussing resources for interfaith families.
As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says âIt was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. Thereâs a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.â One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds âto ask questions in a safe space.â
Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources âbecause of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.â (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)
Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that âWhen it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selvesâŚ in America that means being inclusive of [those who are not Jewish] and other friends.â I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61 percent of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)
Rubel also says that interfaith couples are âuncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]âŚ.â â and thatâs more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.
The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, âare not meant for [those who are not Jewish]â or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say âwe are not meant for [those who are not Jewish];â Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.
I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are âthe people who fit the demographic of the active groupâ â referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,
It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not âmeant for Jewsâ that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not âmeant for Jewsâ but instead are âmeant forâ Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are âfor Jewsâ but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionistsâ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.
Thereâs an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews wonât remain forever separate, and sees her program âas a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.â She hopes her program wonât need to exist in the future.
But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: âthese are the people who get usâŚ [t]his is our community.â The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.
Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemuâs benefit, âAwaken Your Voice,â on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success â it deserves to be.
The extreme weather conditions and the long dark nights of the winter months can be harsh for many of us. But from Thanksgiving until around Valentineâs Day, itâs also a popular time when couples get engaged. It can also be a time when couples who are getting married in the spring and summertime are knee-deep in wedding planning. Whether youâre dating, engaged, already married, considering or expecting children, winter can be a good time to hunker down, get cozy and talk about your vision for your partnership.
There have been many articles in recent years about questions for interfaith couples to discuss before getting married, like this one. Sometimes, interfaith or intercultural couples have more considerations. For example, if both partners come from very different cultural or religious families there is a lot to learn. If one is religious and the other isnât, if one has a large family and the other doesnât, or if one has a very tight knit family and the other doesnâtâany of these things can be an adjustment for both partners. There will need to be negotiation around which side of the family you celebrate which holidays with and about making sure everyone feels included, especially if both are religious, have strong cultural ties or close families. But let me be clear, these discussions are good for all couples. For every couple, there are family dynamics and personalities to navigate.
I often suggest to couples I work with that they create a vision for themselvesâa vision for your life together, for the home you want to create, for the family you build together. If youâve never considered creating a vision before, here are some questions to consider. Each partner should write down their own responses before sharing with the other partner.
Questions to Define Your Interfaith Family Vision:
Once each partner has had a chance to think about these questions for themselves, they should discuss with their partner. If you dread these kinds of big conversations or decision making, make this fun by doing it over your favorite meal or as a special date. Bring openness and curiosity to the process. You may surprise yourself or your partner. Be realistic about what your life looks like now but how it may look different in the future. If youâve dropped a lot of your religious practices during your dating years but want your child to have a bar or bat mitzvah down the road, think about what that really meansâlikely getting back into your observance or joining a congregation and providing an education for your kids. If youâre partner has agreed to raise children in a faith different from their own, talk about what entails.
If you find this brings up more issues or your think you might need some help, consider taking the Love and Religion Workshop through InterfaithFamily, doing an Imago Therapy couples workshop or retreat or finding a couples counselor or coach. Any of these resources will give you more tools for your relationship and help in creating your interfaith family vision.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Itâs been quiet on the intermarriage front for a while; it feels like most peopleâs attention is understandably in the political realm these days. But in the past two weeks there has been interesting news and comment on intermarriage in the more traditional, conservative parts of the Jewish community.
When people talk about intermarriage, for example about the 72 percent rate of intermarriage since 2000 among non-Orthodox Jews, the general understanding is that intermarriage isnât much of a phenomenon in the Orthodox world. A fascinating blog post on intermarriage in the Orthodox world, The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox Community, suggests that that may not be the case. The blogâs creator, Alan Brill, estimates that 7-8 percent of young Modern Orthodox Jews are intermarried, and says that âordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic,âŚâ He also says âcases of full Orthodox conversion âŚ are now quite common.â
Most of the blog post is a guest post by âRuvie,â a Modern Orthodox man, writing about his feelings about his sonâs marriage to someone who was not Jewish â feelings that arenât that different from those of many non-Orthodox Jews.
Ruvie says he is aware of five interfaith marriages in the past year and a half among children of his observant Modern Orthodox friends. âAll parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt.â âThis is something new and growing in the MO community.â He refers to estimates of 5 to 20 percent intermarriage rates in the Orthodox world.
Ruvie complains that there is a taboo about talking about intermarriage that no longer exists in other controversial topics in Orthodoxy, like homosexuality and people abandoning Orthodoxy:
Ruvie describes the reactions of his friends and himself:
It is very clear that Ruvieâs son may have left Modern Orthodoxy but has not left Jewish life. The officiating rabbi recommended that the young woman take an introduction to Judaism course and during the course she decided to undergo a Conservative conversion. Before the wedding the son asked the father to put up a mezuzah at his apartment; after the wedding the son asked his mother where he could ritually immerse their dishes.
It is also very clear that Ruvie prioritizes his relationship with ÂÂÂhis son:
Ruvieâs conclusion: âThere is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Letâs begin now.â
The Conservative movement currently restricts synagogue membership to Jews. The recent news, described in a JTA article, “Conservative movement proposes allowing non-jews as synagogue members,” is that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the association of Conservative synagogues) is asking the synagogues to vote in March to allow individual synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to those who are not Jewish. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of USCJ, said that âthe current standards donât make sense in a world where many intermarried couples are active participants in Conservative congregationsâ and that âthe language of âonly Jews can be members of a synagogueâ makes it seem like [someone who is not Jewish] who is connected is not a member of that community.â
Rabbi Wernick also said that the USCJ is not changing the definition of who counts as Jewish: âWhat weâre trying to do with this is distinguish between community and covenant.â But Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Menâs Clubs and the most outspoken Conservative leader on intermarriage issues, recently created a pamphlet in which he essentially recommends that the Conservative movement adopt patrilineal descent. “The Elephant in the Room: Conservative Judaism and the Patrilineal Question.”
It will be interesting to see movement in the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative parts of the community toward more acceptance and welcoming of interfaith families.
There was also a piece on eJewishPhilanthropy about Hebrew Collegeâs new certificate program in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement, and a positive comment by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in the Forward.