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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Michelle Shain, a researcher at the Cohen Center at Brandeis, has written a very damaging article about the Cohen Centerâs game-changing study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, about whichÂ Iâve said, âThe many rabbis who donât officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples wonât engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.â Shain says she is a social scientist and wants people to understand exactly what the study demonstrates and what it does notâbut she picks and chooses pieces of the study that support the apparent intention of her article to support maintaining Conservative rabbisâ opposition to officiation for interfaith couples.
The key findings of the study were that interfaith couples who had a rabbi as sole officiant were far more likely to join synagogues and raise their children as Jews. Shainâs main point is that those who chose to have a rabbi had richer Jewish experiences, so that the âlogical conclusion is that their stronger pre-existing Jewish commitments led themÂ bothÂ to seek a rabbi to officiate at their weddingsÂ andÂ to engage in Jewish life after their weddings.â She says that on four measures, including having a special meal on Shabbat, there was no difference between couples who had a rabbi and those who did not after controlling for the pre-existing differences.
What she doesnât say is that the study says (at p. 21) that after controlling for pre-existing differences, âintermarried couples who married with a sole Jewish officiant were still significantly more engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples on many of the outcomes discussed above. In particular, they were significantly more likely toÂ raise their oldest child Jewish by religion, enroll children in a Jewish early childhood education setting,Â belong to a synagogue, attend religious services, celebrate Jewish holidays, participate in Jewish community activities, donate to Jewish or Israeli causes, and talk to family and friends about Judaism.â (emphasis added)
Shain also stretches to mentionâwithout citationâa 2010 study that she says shows that officiating rabbis donât have subsequent contact with couples, and take the standard pot-shot that without a random sample survey, no one can say anything about the impact of officiation on subsequent Jewish engagement.
Shain like anyone else is entitled to her views on policy, but is it appropriate to position oneself as an objective, dispassionate researcher and be selective like this? Conservative rabbis who oppose officiation have already made the pre-existing differences argument, and now have support from a researcher at the Cohen Center itself, when the key findings about raising children and synagogue membership arenât touched by that argument.
I would urge Conservative rabbis to consider what the study very carefully does say, without claiming causation: ââInteractions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the coupleâs prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.â That is entirely consistent with common sense and experience, which sometimes are as important as research.
Fortunately, there have been five very positive responses to intermarriage in recent weeks â you can read about themÂ here.
Postscript September 19
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
The media buzz about Conservative rabbis and officiation at weddings of interfaith couples has slowed, but there has been important commentary in the past three weeks.
The rabbis of theÂ Jewish Emergent NetworkÂ â certainly among the most progressive younger rabbis in the country âÂ expressed solidarityÂ with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie for raising important issues, expressing âhope that in the months ahead, the focus will shift from internal Jewish politics to the ways in which contemporary Jewish spiritual leadership, as it looks both to the past and the future, will respond to the increasingly fluid boundaries between the categories of Jew and non-Jew.â
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle had an excellent summary of the Conservative officiation debate in anÂ article about varying opinions of local Conservative rabbis. One rabbi said the Rabbinical Assembly should only change its prohibition if there is an adequate halachic basis to do so; one said if the RA changed its stance he still wouldnât officiate. The article reports that there is a petition being circulated to affirm the prohibition and that the RA has a Blue Ribbon Commission examining the boundaries of the prohibition â not overturning it, but defining what it means.
I was disturbed to read Steven Cohen quoted as criticizing theÂ Cohen Centerâs researchÂ showing a strong association between having a rabbi officiate and interfaith couplesâ later joining synagogues and raising their children Jewish. Cohen apparently says the study provides no evidence of impact and just shows that people who seek a rabbi are more Jewishly engaged. I think the Cohen Centerâs interpretation makes much more sense: âInteractions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the coupleâs prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.â
The article reports that Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, who said he would officiate for interfaith couples if the RA changed its prohibition, found a way to participate in a wedding without overtly violating it: while under the chuppah he delivered the âwedding talk,â while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony. He said, âI believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own childrenâŠ. And I have to say, âIâm so sorry I canât perform your wedding.â They never get over it.â He continued, and I think this makes a great deal of sense,
We are not going to have a better chance of a Jewish future if we reject our children. There is no chance then. The more welcoming we are, the better chance we have for a Jewish future. I do believe this is a matter of life and death for our movement. I believe intermarriage is not leading our kids away from Judaism. I believe it is our reaction to intermarriage that is pushing them away.
Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who was expelled by the RA because he started to officiate for interfaith couples, says that the leadership of the Conservative movement isÂ at odds with its members. âThe Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary may adamantly reject the idea that Conservative rabbis should officiate at interfaith marriages; the Conservative constituency overwhelmingly believes they should.â
Intermarriage is one of the clearest manifestations of the consequences of the gap between rabbis and constituents, which I believe is at the core of the crisis in Conservative Judaism today. But the fundamental issue is that while leadership still perceives Conservative Judaism as a halachic movement, its constituents do not. For them, Judaism is not about law. It is a matter of the heart and spirit. It is about intent, feeling, and identity. And when it comes to intermarriage, it is about love. It is not about adherence to technical standards that are arcane and burdensome, that lack transparency, and make life harder and more difficult. Like most non-Orthodox Jews, members of Conservative synagogues are seeking religious communities that enable them to celebrate the milestones of their life with joy and meaning, and which help them shoulder the burdens of a challenging society with greater confidence and purpose.
But where they seek peace, Conservative Judaism offers Halacha. Where they yearn for fulfillment, they are given the message that they are Jewishly inauthentic. Where they crave acceptance, they are judged.
The New Jersey Jewish News had an interestingÂ essay by Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptmann, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a grandchild growing up in an interfaith home. She says that as of now, she wonât officiate for interfaith couples, âbut I wish I could.â (The essay is about what she says is the more important question of how to get the children of intermarriage to grow up Jewish, and about the key role that grandparents can play.)
Finally, there was aÂ great article interviewing Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, who outlined six tips to make both sides feel comfortable while respecting their traditions. She explains she made the difficult decision to co-officiate because âthere have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.â
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Alongside theÂ negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.
Naomi Schaefer Riley has anÂ interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the Bânai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says
If thereâs one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, itâs the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isnât Jewish will turn around a few years later and push them to send their children to the synagogue preschool. In my interviews [for her book on interfaith couples], this practice is commonly labeled âhypocriticalâ by those affected by it.
Riley makes the interesting observation that the Catholic church used to require the non-Catholic spouse to promise to raise children Catholic, but decided it couldnât in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders âhave no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.â Despite that, Riley does think the Bânai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.
In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples â after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding â is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, anÂ excellent article in theÂ Boston GlobeÂ about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing interfaith marriages not as a loss â âItâs not a minus one, itâs a plus one.â
Rubel says Honeymoon Israelâs goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but âto empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.â Sixty percent of the couples who take the trip are interfaith, including the author of the article, who writes that a few months after the trip, her group âhad settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.â This is very important. It shows whatâs possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.
After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children â and thereâsÂ positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28Â percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith familiesÂ and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish â for example, 89 percent of interfaithÂ families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67Â percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaithÂ families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is âexcitingâ to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.
One of the reportâs conclusions is that âthere is room to grow the program among âŠ intermarried familiesâ and that PJ needs to expand efforts to reach more of the less-connected, less-affiliated families. I very much hope that PJ does that. Itâs interesting that PJâs influence is greater within the home; other studies have found that interfaith families are more comfortable engaging in Jewish life at home with their family than in more public, organized settings. The report notes that PJ traditionally has reached families through organized institutions such as synagogues, Federations, or JCCâs; thatâs not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than families that are solely Jewish; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.
The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books â with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying âmore cultural booksâŠ more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazingâ â other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying âWe value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.â Itâs very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith familiesâ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Libraryâs efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.
After young interfaith families often come bânai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post hasÂ a very sweet storyÂ about two familiesâ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah â the fatherâs mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didnât have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs âto confirm their identity.â The fatherâs wife/boyâs mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldnât have been able to do it. The other family included a Jewish mother from the FSU, married to a man named Bernstein who had a Jewish father but was raised Catholic; the father says, âIâm still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. Iâm Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.â The son says, âThe tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.â One more proof of whatâs possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.
That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed inÂ a fascinating episode on interfaith marriageÂ on the BBC radio show “All Things Considered.” The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the U.K., a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50 percent of U.K. Jews are now in interfaith marriages, and that more U.K. Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples â as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas â for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesusâ divinity.
Finally, theÂ new rabbi at Montrealâs Dorshei Emet, reportedly one of the few if not the only Reconstructionist congregations where interfaith weddings are not done, comes with experience officiating for interfaith couples and âmakes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.â And Keren McGinity persuasively presentsÂ the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Thereâs been an explosion of news and comment about intermarriage in the past 10 days. On June 11 I blogged about Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieâs big reveal that he would officiate for interfaith couples who were the modern-day equivalents of the ger toshav, the âresident alienâ who in the past was not Jewish but lived among and interacted with Jews and had some status under Jewish law. Lau-Lavieâs proposal got more coverage, from Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week, as well as a statement from the head of the Conservative rabbisâ association that reiterated their opposition to Conservative rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples.
The Forward publicized Lau-Lavieâs proposal and invited comment to a new âconversationâ about intermarriage I thought the most trenchant comment came from Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, a senior Conservative rabbi who had announced that he would officiate for interfaith couples, and was expelled from the Conservative rabbisâ association. Rabbi Rosenbloom writes that Lau-Lavieâs idea, while creative and imaginative, is fatally flawed, âtoo little, too late.â
âThe person who is not Jewish is not looking to study for six months, make various commitments for future involvement in the Jewish community, and be known (I must say, derogatorily) as a âresident alienââŠ. Mostly, this proposal is about making a rabbi feel comfortable doing something he or she wants to do but is not permitted to do.â Rabbi Rosenbloom says that what couples want from officiants is affirmation:
We should embrace them with love and affirmation, not make demands upon them that they cannot possibly commit to, and act as if we are grudgingly doing them a favor.Â What we need most is faith in the future. We need to believe in Judaism. We need to believe that the wisdom of Jewish teaching, the ethical values that are at the heart of that teaching, and lure of being part of an ancient people that is continually reinventing itself to be relevant and responsive to the changing religious, spiritual, and moral demands of every epoch, are compelling enough that many of these couples will choose to live as part of the Jewish community. We need to put fewer obstacles in their path. We need to welcome them for what they may add to our people as well as what we might add to their lives.
Susan Katz Miller also offered What Do Interfaith Couples Want From Rabbis: she says they want co-officiants, not to be forced to make promises about how they will raise children, and Jewish institutions to educate their children even if they are raising them with both religions in the home.
In the meantime, on June 16 the Forward, the New York Jewish Week and JTA reported that the rabbis at âmegaâ âflagshipâ synagogue Bânai Jeshurun in New York had announced that they too would officiate for interfaith couples who commit to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. Interfaith couples will sign a ritual document but not a ketubah. The rabbis will still hold to the matrilineal definition of Jewishness. As JTA reports, BJ is âlarge and trendsetting, and âhas roots in the Conservative movement, [but] is unaffiliated with any denomination.â
And also in the meantime a brave Orthodox Rabbi, Avram Mlotek, wrote “Time to Rethink Our Resistance to Intermarriage.“ He actually says, âA posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.â And âIn order for the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, itâs time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices. Instead, welcome âthe otherâ into the Jewish family. The rest is commentary.â The liberal Modern Orthodox seminary where Rabbi Mlotek was ordained, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, was quick to reiterate its opposition to intermarriage.
There are two important commentaries on all of the news. Shmuel Rosner, in “The rabbisâ intermarriage debate: How to decide who is right and who is wrong,” says the issue is complicated when demography and continuity and the perspective of Jewish policy are taken into account. Pragmatically, he writes, âthe Jews should know by now that âstoppingâ intermarriage is a hollow quest. It is not going to happenâŠâ but intermarriage is a challenge that may be manageable, and may even be an opportunity, but may reduce the number of Jews and the intensity of Jewishness. Rosner concludes that the only way forward is to âlet this trial and error run its course.â
If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us â and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.
The problem with this incredibly non-activist approach is that arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples relationships.
Andrew Silow-Carroll has a very interesting take on the latest research showing lesser engagement by interfaith families. He says that critics of the researchers say that they âdonât see the people behind the numbers.â
These critics say the major studies and their authors treat the intermarried as a statistical burden rather than living and breathing individuals making sometimes hard, sometimes welcome choices. ThatÂ interfaith couples feel judged by the âtribalisticâ mainstream,Â and that Jewish institutions should accept people as they are, not as they wish them to be. Besides, critics say, the statisticians are working against forces they canât resist and longing for a past that cannot be recaptured.
In response to the Forward invitation to join the new âconversationâ about intermarriage, I adapted the piece I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy, “How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Â Interfaith Families Be?” and the Forward published “We Must Embrace Interfaith Families â with No Strings Attached.” I said that all of the commentary and discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating skirted the difficult issues that have to be addressed if interfaith families are going to engage Jewishly â the need for radically inclusive attitudes and practices, the need to stop privileging in-marriage, the need to welcome people from different faith traditions without limitations.
Silow-Carroll says the intermarriage debate has âescalatedâ and judging by all of the commentary it surely has. Stay tuned to see how it develops next.
Postscript June 21
That was fast! Today the Forward has prominent Conservative rabbi Rabbi Daniel Gordis saying “The Conservative Movement Will Inevitably Cave on Intermarriage.” Rabbi Gordis seems to lament a series of Conservative halachic decisions that in his view gave in to social pressure â allowing people to drive to synagogue on Saturdays, to eat fish in non-kosher restaurants, to sanctioning same-sex marriage (he says he isnât taking a stand on the last issue in this essay). The interesting point he makes, that I hadnât thought of: If Conservative rabbis officiate at weddings for interfaith couples, it would be an untenable position for them to later say âyes, one of our rabbis married you, but no, we donât consider your children Jewish.â In other words, they will have to recognize patrilineal descent; Rabbi Gordis laments, âNot that far off is the day when people whom Conservative Judaism calls Jews will not be able to marry Orthodox Jews or many Israelis.â
The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. Iâve seen articles that talk about âcaving on intermarriageâ and âcoming to terms with itâ and âaddressing the problem.â This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.
By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What weâre stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.
We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. Itâs not a disease. Itâs not a shameful act. Itâs a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. Itâs about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.
When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, âThanks for doing the work that Iâm not allowed to do.â
So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues donât deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that âWe accept you and your partnerâ and also, âI cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.â These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.
One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this coupleâa Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnosticâthey said, âWe never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now weâre excited to have a rabbi.â I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing âNo, youâre not welcome hereâ either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.
Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: âMy fiancĂ© is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didnât want a rabbi because he was worried heâd feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.â
I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.
I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.
Families are complicated and most peopleâs religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.
Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesnât matter.Â People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she wonât marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.
Photo credit: Tom The Photographer
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Thereâs been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who weâve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in theÂ Washington Post:Â I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.
Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offeredÂ Itâs Time to Say âYes.âÂ Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation howÂ The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a âYesâ to Interfaith Couples.Â But another young Conservative rabbi wrote aboutÂ five steps to âsave Conservative JudaismâÂ â with no mention of interfaith families.
In June an article in theÂ ForwardÂ about rabbis trying toÂ make the Conservative movement more gay-friendlyÂ mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; âLau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.â
Lau-Lavieâs Lab/Shul hadÂ announced an annual celebrationÂ on June 13 featuring âthe revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americansâ â but the news is out in an piece by theÂ ForwardâsÂ Jane Eisner,Â Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews â And The Jew-ish.Â As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use theÂ ger toshav, resident alien, concept âwithin a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.â He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he wonât co-officiate). He will engage academics to âstudy whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.â He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.
Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is âfascinatedâ by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, toÂ simultaneously commentÂ that while we âneedâ Lau-Lavieâs approach, it wonât succeed unless Jews âunderstand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.â
I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, hasÂ expressed open-nessÂ to the experiment â but cautions that itâs the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.
In the newÂ ForwardÂ piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children arenât raised Jews-by-religion, itâs not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have aÂ new paperÂ released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews donât measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.
That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away. Â Eisner says she wants to âsustain and enrich modern Jewish life;â Cohen says âBeing Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us â to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.â We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands â and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life â with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.
In an otherwise really nice article,Â How My Daughterâs Bat Mitzvah Almost Didnât Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family âsurvived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.â Â Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but theÂ ForwardÂ editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.
In an otherwise fine article titledÂ College doesnât turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says âcollege education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.â In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse â being intermarried â with assimilation. He should know better.
Reza Aslan and Jessica JackleyâsÂ TEDx talkÂ about how they are raising their children withÂ Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.
Iâll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim KeenâsÂ Inside IntermarriageÂ â I was honored to write the Foreword â will be available on August 1 but can beÂ pre-orderedÂ now. The third edition of our friend Anita DiamantâsÂ The New Jewish WeddingÂ â now titledÂ The Jewish Wedding NowÂ â came out this past week.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that âthe Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.â He wants to âmeet people where they are,â and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be âfully observant.â
I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I donât have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and âdoableâ will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married âwhere they areâ is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.
As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:
We really donât understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of âpolite societyâ said at the advent of racial intermarriageâŠ.
If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status â so they leave.
Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:
I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.
Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would âlevel the playing field of Jewish identityâ â and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all bânai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.
But these are band-aids that donât address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be âpassionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.â Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples â all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Rabbi Darren Kleinberg has written a very important essay published in eJewishPhilanthropy this week, Hybrid Judaism: The Transformation of American Jewish Identity. Kleinberg was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in 2005 but describes himself as no longer Orthodox. He writes that identity is not a psychological category that describes who one âis,â but rather a sociological category that describes oneâs affiliations, the product of social interactions. As our interactions have become more complex, so does our identity, which he says is best described as âhybrid.â
Given this reality, it is fair to state that the binary distinction between Jew and non-Jew is an increasingly ineffective way to describe those people found in and outside of the American Jewish community.
[W]hat matters is whether people wish to be affiliated with the Jewish community, not how, or to what extent, they choose to identify themselves â after all, affiliation is identity. If we are able to do this, our Jewish communities will grow, even as their constitution will likely undergo significant change.
One practical consequence: Kleinberg recommends that synagogues that are not bound by Jewish law should remove all distinctions among participants so that those who do not self-identify as Jewish but affiliate with the Jewish community through a synagogue (for example, a spouse from a different faith tradition) should have full access to all ritual and leadership opportunities.
This is an essay that is well worth reading.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland, Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, wrote How Reporting Made Me a Better Rabbi for eJewishPhilanthropy also this week. She writes that tracking and recording interactions reflects that every person is important and every encounter can be profound. Keeping track reminds her to follow up, and people are shocked and overwhelmingly grateful that she gave them time and followed up with them.
Many of us profess a commitment to radical hospitality, but are we living it? When I am compiling my reports, I ask myself: Did I go above and beyond what I needed to do to make sure this individual I am âcountingâ feels embraced? If they were to reflect on our encounter, would they feel they had been respected and seen as a holy being? Did they leave the interaction feeling more connected to Judaism and our community? If they are outside the scope of my organizationâs mandate, have I done all I can to connect them elsewhere? Did anyone fall off my radar?
Mychal writes that an âevery person countsâ mentality is âour best shot as a Jewish community to speak to younger generations yearning for connection and individual attention. In the end, everyone wants to feel like they matter.â
She also writes that InterfaithFamily âstrive
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has passed a resolution to âallow individual congregations to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews.â Some Conservative synagogues were already accepting as members people from different faith traditions, but the practice has now been officially sanctioned. Rabbi Stewart Vogel, treasurer of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbisâ association) and vice chair of USCJâs Commission on Community and Covenant which considers ways to engage interfaith couples, said âThe Rabbinical Assembly believes in the idea that synagogue life should be open to those who wish to be part of the Jewish community and we are enriched by their presence.â The JTA article on the membership change noted,
The Conservative movement prohibits its rabbis from marrying or attending the wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples, though some of its synagogues celebrate intermarriages before they occur and welcome the couples afterward. In recent years, several Conservative rabbis have protested the intermarriage prohibition.
Finally, the TV show Switched at Birth has a new story line involving a Jewish woman married to a Christian man, and the manâs mother. The mother-in-law wants her new grandchild baptized, the mother doesnât, the father is in between. Â âSwitched at Birthâ gets an interfaith marriage dilemma just right.
Hoping to convince Lily to agree to the baptism, Katherine [the mother-in-law] invites her minister to explain the details of the ritual. It backfires. âI just sat there growing more and more uncomfortable. Hearing that reverend say âChristâ a million times, I have never felt more Jewish in my life,â Lily tells Toby afterwards.
Even though she isnât religious, Lily realizes Judaism is an important part of her identity and she wants that for her son as well. âJews are defined by being other than. Not Christian. For me youâre either Jewish different from the rest of the world and proud of it or youâre not. And Iâm Jewish,â she saysâŠ.
Lily perfectly explains the cultural bond Jews feel towards each other: âWe have our own history. Our own language. Our own food. Our own sense of humor. And everyone who is Jewish is bonded by that and I want my son to be in that little circle with me.â
Toby and his parents eventually come to terms with Lily raising Carlton Jewish. but they acknowledge they have a lot of learning to do. Toby says he will be taking some classes in Judaism, and Katherine responds that she will also.
There are of course different patterns of behaviors that interfaith couples follow to resolve issues like how to raise their children with religious traditions. The review makes this couple sound very unambiguous, and the mother-in-law very tolerant. But it sounds worth watching.
We are glad to report that the Conservative movement is making anÂ important step toward inclusion. In an official moveÂ on March 1, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism voted 94-8 to allow individual congregations to permit people who are not Jewish to be members.Â Some Conservative synagogues, like many in the Bay Area, have already welcomed those who are not Jewish as members of their congregations.
In a recent article, Religion News Service stated that there were Conservative synagogues that considered those who were not Jewish as members through family memberships. With this official vote, individuals can now be welcomed as members without being part of a family membership.
There is speculation that this could pave the way for the Conservative rabbis’ associationÂ to allow rabbis to officiateÂ at interfaith weddings in the future.
In March Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, explaining “Why I Will Not Simply Accept Intermarriage,” wrote for the Forward that âCelebrating interfaith weddingsâŠ [would] diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.â I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forwardâs website):
Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Haâaretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaismâs guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that âJewish leadersâ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.â Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says âWhat if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?â Among his many refreshing comments are, âJudaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationshipâ and âpeople of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious waysâ and âtwo people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.â Rabbi Knopf concludes,
We applaud Rabbi Knopfâs novel approach and the welcoming attitude he expresses. But what happens when interfaith couples are brought closer to Judaism, specifically to Conservative synagogues? In March, Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, wrote a blot post for The Times of Israel describing a New Conservative/Masorti ceremony for interfaith couples, which is described in greater length on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly (the association of Conservative rabbis).
Rabbi Lerner was a co-chair of the Rabbinical Assemblyâs Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, âa ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friendsâŠ within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).â The core of the Hanukkat Habayit ceremony is putting up a mezuzah; the ceremony is described at length in the blog post and on the RA website and it does appear to offer a lovely and meaningful ritual and celebrate the Jewish choices the couple has made. It also comes with a three- to six-month learning period with the rabbi before the ceremony and continuing conversations with the rabbi afterwards, all aimed as supporting the coupleâs Jewish growth.
We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but itâs important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is âfor interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;â âif the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;â âThere should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the coupleâs home, such as a Christmas tree.â Many interfaith couples who might want to make Jewish choices in a Conservative context may note be quite as far along in terms of their decision making as is required for the ceremony. And there is continuing tension with those coming from the perspective of tradition â as Rabbi Lerner says, âsomeâ in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, âas we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.â
This will surely be a continuing discussion worth following.