Patrilineal Descent: Should the Baby be Taken to the Mikveh for Conversion?

PregnantDo you know which of the following children would be considered Jewish without going through a conversion according to halacha (traditional Jewish law)?

a)      A child born from the sperm of a Jewish male and the egg of a Jewish female, who was carried by a surrogate who was not Jewish and then raised by her Jewish biological parents.

b)      The child of a biological father who was not Jewish and a biological mother who was not Jewish at the time of conception but who had a traditional Jewish conversion two days before giving birth to the child, who is adopted at birth and raised by parents who are not Jewish.

c)       The biological child of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish at the time she gives birth but later converts to Judaism, who is raised as a Jew by his biological parents.

In fact, only the child in (b) is considered Jewish according to halacha. The only factor that matters in determining the Jewish “status” of a child is the religion of the woman who gives birth to the child at the time she gives birth. Whether the biological father is Jewish; whether adoptive parents are Jewish; whether a biological mother is Jewish if she is not the one who gives birth to the child; even whether the child is raised as a Jew…all of these factors are not relevant in determining whether the child is Jewish according to halacha. (For discussion of this issue by a Conservative Rabbi CLICK HERE.)

The issue of “Who is a Jew?” can be confusing; it can seem illogical, and at times unfair. Due to the traditional Jewish rule of “matrilineal descent,” when a birth-mother is Jewish—regardless of how (or by whom) the child is raised—the child is Jewish according to halacha. But when the father is Jewish (or, in the case of adoption or surrogacy, both parents may be Jewish) but the birth mother is not Jewish, even if the child is raised as a Jew, he is not Jewish according to halacha.

Nancy and Drew (not their real names) were aware of the traditional Jewish requirement of matrilineal descent when they sat in my office recently, Nancy six months pregnant with their first child, a girl. Drew, who is Jewish, and Nancy, a practicing Catholic, had decided that any children they had would be raised as Jews.  “So,” Nancy said to me, her hand resting on top of her growing belly, “how long after the baby is born should we take her to the mikveh (the ritual bath which is used for conversion to Judaism)?”

As a Reform Rabbi, I was somewhat taken aback by Nancy’s question. It has been years since the Reform Movement began recognizing “patrilineal descent” (i.e., the child can be recognized as a Jew if the father is Jewish, even if the mother is not Jewish). Drew grew up in a Reform synagogue, and he and Nancy had even begun to discuss joining a local Reform synagogue, where nobody would ever question the Jewishness of their daughter. Why, I wondered, did they feel a need to convert their daughter to Judaism when she would already be Jewish? To me, a conversion would be not only unnecessary, but problematic, since it would imply that the baby wasn’t “really” Jewish even though Drew was Jewish and she would be raised as a Jew.

And so I asked the couple why they wanted to convert their daughter, since it wasn’t necessary. Their response was simple and practical: “What if we end up at a Conservative synagogue one day, or what if our daughter grows up and wants to be married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi? We wouldn’t want her to feel that her being Jewish is in question, so we figured it’s best to ‘cover all of the bases’ while she’s a baby. This way, more people will consider her to be Jewish.”

I understood where they were coming from. After all, if they decided at some point to join a Conservative synagogue—even one that was very welcoming of interfaith families—since “patrilineal descent” isn’t recognized by the Conservative movement, their daughter might be allowed to be enrolled in Religious School without converting, but she would have to convert before being allowed to become a Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue. Wouldn’t it make sense, they reasoned, for them to take her to the mikveh while she was still a baby? Then, if they did join a Conservative synagogue at some point, they wouldn’t have to tell her at the age of 12 that she had to go to the mikveh because she wasn’t “really” Jewish according to the standards of her community.

I understood and respected their motivation to shield their daughter from the potential future pain of having her Jewishness questioned…of being told by others that because her mother wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t Jewish, even though she’d been living as a Jew her entire life and had always identified as a Jew. My own daughter, simply because she was born to a Jewish mother, will never have to endure such painful questioning of her identity by others; why should Nancy and Drew have to worry that their daughter would have to deal with such questioning?

But still, I felt that by embracing Nancy and Drew’s “solution” to “convert” a child that I would already consider Jewish, I wouldn’t be holding true to my belief in the legitimacy of “patrilineal descent.” And so while I acknowledged the benefits of the couple “converting” their daughter while she was still a baby, I also expressed my concerns.

Whether Nancy or Drew will take their daughter to a mikveh for conversion while she is still a baby is their decision to make, and I will honor whatever decision they come to. But it saddens me that they have to make such a decision: choosing between their own liberal Jewish beliefs and the desire for their daughter to be recognized as a Jew by the larger Jewish community.

What would you do in Nancy and Drew’s situation? Would you take your child to the mikveh? What if the child were adopted and neither of the biological parents were Jewish?

Wanted: Members

The Chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a recent article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal titled “Wanted: Converts to Judaism.” In the article, Eisen writes, “I am asking the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion, bringing potential converts close and actively making the case for them to commit to Judaism. I am asking Jewish leaders to provide the funding needed for programs, courses and initiatives that will place conversion at the center of Jewish consciousness and the community’s agenda.”

I can just see it now: When you enter a Conservative synagogue, there will be billboards that will say, “Have you considered conversion to Judaism?” Partners who are not Jewish but are part of a Jewish family and raising children with Judaism may want to run the other way or hide for fear of being encouraged to convert when they have not expressed a desire or openness to do so.

Today I spoke with someone whose husband describes himself as “Jew-ish.” He has no other faith or religion in his life today in his mind or heart or soul. He is raising a Jewish son and is enjoying the journey immensely. He leaves work early each month for a family Shabbat experience at our local JCC. He already dreams about his son’s bar mitzvah. He does not want to convert at the present time. He feels that it would hurt his family to become a different religion. He feels it is too much of a break from his family of origin and too drastic. He loved his upbringing and feels close to his extended family and this seems like it would cause unnecessary pain to them.

Instead of using “every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion,” why not explicitly and strongly say that when an interfaith family joins a congregation, then the partner who isn’t Jewish has become a “member of the community.” Being a “member of the community” would be a status granted because this person is making a statement that the majority of American Jews are not making any more. That statement is that Judaism is best lived in community and that for the community to exist we need structures that can house and support learning, worship, life cycle events, pastoral care and social justice work. When an interfaith family joins a congregation, the surveys indicate they behave similarly to in-married families. The synagogue is a vehicle for Jewish behavior and Jewish continuity.

When someone becomes a “member,” he or she will hopefully be enticed to want more learning and may even want the spiritual experience that most liberal Jews have not enjoyed of immersing in a mikveh. I would encourage any liberal Jew to immerse in a mikveh when they as adults have chosen Judaism by supporting a congregation or raising children with Judaism.

Joining a congregation can be a prohibitive financial pursuit and thus there are people who want to join who can’t. Our money should be going to creating different synagogue financial structures, not toward funding programs aimed at conversion. This looks at people in only two categories—Jewish or not Jewish. The statement Eisen is making is that we want all those in our community to be “Jews.” This doesn’t take into account that for a partner who is not Jewish to join a congregation, it means that they are more than “not Jewish.” And they don’t need to be changed in order to live as Jews and to enrich the Jewish community.

Converts Not Necessarily Wanted – An Open Letter to Arnold Eisen

Chancellor Eisen,

I just read your article in the Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Converts to Judaism, in which you advocate for “the rabbis of the Conservative movement to use every means to explicitly and strongly advocate for conversion.”  Considering that you are the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement, your words carry great weight.  And because of this, I am asking you to reconsider your position.

I of course agree with you that there is much beauty and deep meaning in living a Jewish life.  I am overjoyed when someone comes to me and says that she has decided to pursue the path toward conversion—whether it is because she has lived with a Jewish partner and raised Jewish children and now wholeheartedly desires to become a Jew; she has fallen in love with a Jewish person and thinks that living as a Jew could elevate her own life; or because, independent of any personal relationships, she has found Judaism and has come to believe that she is meant to be a Jew.

It is incumbent upon those of us who are rabbis as well as all people and institutions that are committed to Jewish continuity that we let all people, and especially those family members in our midst who are not Jewish, know that they are always welcome to become Jewish if that is what their soul desires, and that our doors are open wide.  As a rabbi, there are few things I have done that are more rewarding than accompanying someone on their journey to becoming a Jew. Conversion, when done for the right reasons, is a blessing for the new Jew as well as for the Jewish community.  But conversion isn’t the only option, and it isn’t always the right option.  And while I am sure you in no way intended this, I greatly worry that by advocating for conversion, the Jewish community will give the impression that any conversion is OK, even without the sincerity of conviction and belief that a genuine conversion would require.

I agree with you that we should ensure that “opportunities for serious adult study of Judaism and active participation in Jewish life” are always available.  Over the years, I have seen many family members who are not Jewish take Jewish learning very seriously, and I have seen such family members actively participating in Jewish communal life.  I am sure you have witnessed this as well. Sometimes family members who are not Jewish decide over time to become Jewish themselves (often before a significant life-cycle event, such as a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah).  Others choose not to become Jewish but to remain part of the community.  Their reasons for not becoming Jewish are as diverse as individuals themselves – including the fact that they may believe in and practice another religion; they may not want to convert out of respect for their own parents or other family members; or they may simply not believe in God, thus feeling that conversion to any religion would be insincere.

While I believe that family members who are not Jewish should always know that they are welcome to explore becoming Jewish and that we would be honored to have them as converts if this is what they truly want and believe, I worry that if  “Jewish institutions and their rabbis…actively encourage non-Jewish family members in our midst to take the next step and formally commit to conversion,” as you suggest we do, we will not only encourage conversions for the wrong reasons, but that we will also be putting undue pressure on family members who are not Jewish.  Rather than bringing them into the fold, as you desire, I fear that we could turn them away.

Instead, I think we need to send the message that we welcome family members who are not Jewish as part of our community just as they are (rather than trying to turn them into what we want them to be).  Rather than “explicitly and strongly advocat[ing] for conversion” as you suggest, I believe that we should let family members who are not Jewish know that we would be honored to help them become Jewish if that is what they wish for themselves, and we would be equally honored if they do not convert but make the commitment to raise their children as Jews.  What we really need to do is to ensure that resources are available for parents who did not grow up Jewish (as well as those who did grow up Jewish) to raise their children with Judaism in their lives, whether or not they themselves convert.

Toward the end of your article, you make reference to the biblical character Ruth, the “most-famous convert in Jewish tradition.”  While we often refer to Ruth as a “convert,” using such a term is anachronistic, since “conversion” as we now know it did not exist in Biblical times.  But, more important, as I point out in my blog Re-reading Ruth: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and Her Interfaith Marriage,” we cannot ignore the timing of Ruth’s conversion.  As I noted in my blog, by the time Ruth made her famous declaration of commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi and to the people and God of Israel, Ruth’s Israelite husband, Noami’s son Machlon, was already deceased.  This was already after Ruth’s marriage—not before it.

Ruth may have found, as you point out, “community, meaning and direction by entering deeply into her new identity,” but this didn’t happen because Naomi or anyone else in her family encouraged Ruth or advocated for her to take on a new identity.  In fact, the Book of Ruth explicitly informs us that after Machlon had died and Naomi was leaving Ruth’s homeland of Moab to return to Bethlehem, Naomi repeatedly urged Ruth to “turn back” (Ruth 1:11-15) rather than accompany Naomi on her journey.  Ruth uttered the words “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God  (Ruth 1:16) not because Naomi “actively encouraged her” but because Naomi had already accepted her for so many years for who she was—a Moabite, an “outsider,” that was married to her son.  It was because of Naomi’s unconditional love for Ruth that Ruth linked her future with that of Naomi, her people and her God—and ultimately went on to become the great-grandmother of King David.

Chancellor Eisen, you note in the first paragraph of your article that “Judaism needs more Jews.”  I agree with you that the high rate of intermarriage  “presents the Jewish community…perhaps, with a unique opportunity.”  But where we disagree is on what that opportunity is.  In my view, the opportunity we have is not to necessarily convince those who are married to Jews to convert.  Instead, like Naomi, we can help to ensure our Jewish “tomorrows” by unconditionally welcoming spouses and partners of Jews into our Jewish community and making it as easy and meaningful as possible for them to raise Jewish children.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Robyn Frisch
Director, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia

An Enlightening Lobster Lunch

LobsterI have a tradition with a friend whose birthday is also in April, of going out for lobster to celebrate. This is the fourth year we have done this. She is a former synagogue president and Jewish volunteer and as you know, I am a rabbi. I do not promote or broadcast my decision not to keep kosher (each liberal Jew has to learn about and make an educated, autonomous choice about how to practice Judaism) and for some, keeping kosher is a daily reminder about ethical living, environmentalism, animal rights, our sacred responsibility to feed the hungry, choices we are making about the food we consume and the blessings around us all the time.

Ari and server

Ari (right) with her server, Josh S.

Our server’s name was Josh S. We told Josh S. that this was our “un-kosher” birthday lunch and we were hungry and excited to eat! He chuckled. During the meal my friend was telling me about how her son, who married a Catholic woman, just got baptized over Easter as a Hebrew Catholic. It was with some sadness, internal wrestling and wonderment that she shared this news with me. She and her family attended his baptism and her son cried tears of joy and relief that his family supported him through his spiritual and religious journey.

My friend knows that some other mothers would have said, “love is lost and you are no longer my son,” and other mothers would have said, “love is not lost, but I can’t come to your ceremony.” Her son was an active Reform Jew his whole life and even sought out his local synagogue when he was living on his own after college. He did not feel he was greeted there with warmth, welcome or interest from anyone in the community as a newcomer. When he went to church with his wife, however, he was greeted with retreat opportunities to get to know others in a relaxed, fun and engaging atmosphere. He was greeted with love and open arms. We spoke about the need for radical cultural shifts in many synagogues to become a place not of “membership” like a private club, but “My House Shall Be a House of Prayer for All People” as is emblazed across Chicago Sinai a verse from Isaiah, for instance. My friend has come to a beautiful place of acceptance and peace because her child is happy.

At the end of our two-pound lobster lunch (in addition to multiple coleslaws and garlic bread—yes we felt a little sick!) our waiter came with the check. Something made me ask him about being “Josh S.” He explained that he was the new Josh and had to have his last initial on his name tag. He went on to tell us that the S. stands for Schwartz and his Dad is Jewish and mom is Catholic. He was raised Catholic but certainly feels close to his Jewish side of the family. He spoke about going to his grandma’s for holidays and of Jewish foods. He told me he was open to talking more and learning more about InterfaithFamily/Chicago. He said he was confused or conflicted at times growing up, but as an adult has a religious identity.

Oh, I have so many questions for this young man. Are there any ways the Jewish community could be accessible to him if he wants to learn about his heritage? I am going to suggest a Taste of Judaism class among other ideas. He shared his email address so that we can continue the conversation. I taught him the Yiddish word, “beshert” meaning inevitable or preordained (often referring to one’s soul mate).

What’s my take-away from this lunch? There are many, many people who have family members who are Jewish, who are heirs to this great culture and way of life. Whatever paths they have chosen, they may be interested in learning more about Judaism and connecting in some way as adults. We need to make sure our synagogues are accessible, period. And Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish cultural centers like Spertus should also be celebrated by our community as places where someone can tentatively tip toe in and maybe end up staying a while.

RE-READING RUTH: Not “Ruth and Her Conversion” but “Ruth and her Interfaith Marriage”

A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.

The Book of Ruth“Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, are among the most well known and most powerful words in the Bible. They express Ruth’s commitment to Naomi—and to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. With this declaration, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with the lot of the Jewish people, and she recognized the God of Israel as her God.

Often Ruth is spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course Ruth’s “conversion” wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an Introduction to Judaism class (I can’t imagine that any such classes were offered in Moab!); she didn’t appear before a Beit Din (a rabbinic court); and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikveh (ritual bath). And in fact, throughout the Book of Ruth, even after Ruth makes her declaration of commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel, Ruth is constantly referred to as “the Moabite,” reminding us, the readers, that Ruth was still seen as an “outsider.”

Even if we are to accept that Ruth converted to Judaism (at a time long before conversion as we now know it), the timing of Ruth’s “conversion” is noteworthy. Having lost her husband and two sons, Machlon (Ruth’s husband) and Chilion (who was married to another Moabite woman, Orpah), while living in Moab, Naomi was preparing to head back to Israel. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families, and Orpah followed her instructions. Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and when Naomi told her to “return to her people and her gods” as Orpah had done, Ruth responded: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go….”

By the time Ruth made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon, which lasted about ten years, was an interfaith marriage! I can only imagine that Ruth’s great love for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the period of the marriage and beyond Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was—making Ruth feel valued and loved.

So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If ONLY she were Jewish…” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel: that she’s not quite good enough, that she’s second class. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth. While the text may go out of its way to call her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth”: beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her own land and her own people to return to Naomi’s homeland with her after Machlon had died.

Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents—and the Jewish community as a whole—could be as non-judgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of Machlon’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and choose after a period of time to become Jewish. We see this happen all of the time: Someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish. (As a rabbi, I would much prefer that someone wait to convert until they’re sure that it’s right for them, rather than converting to appease a prospective in-law or just make things “easier” when getting married. A conversion just to make someone else happy seems to me to be “empty” and insincere.)

Of course even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are non-judgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner in an interfaith marriage who didn’t grow up Jewish is going to convert. Some people won’t convert because they still practice another religion, and others will decide—for a variety of reasons—that conversion to Judaism isn’t for them. And that’s OK too! Our community needs to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves—just as Naomi showed Ruth respect throughout the time that she was married to Machlon. As Naomi realized throughout the marriage, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she WAS—not for what she WANTED Ruth to be.

At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” who was in an interfaith marriage to Machlon is the great-grandmother of David—not only a great King of Israel, but the progenitor of the Messiah.

Soon it will be Shavuot. It’s customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. It’s quite appropriate to read the story of a woman who demonstrated her loyalty to Judaism on the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. As Shavuot approaches, I will celebrate Ruth, who wasn’t raised Jewish, from our Jewish past. And I will also celebrate all of those people in our Jewish present who weren’t raised Jewish: those who’ve chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community in less formal ways (by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community). All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.

My Wife Eats Cereal in The Garage

Passover cerealWe have been through 20 Passovers together. My wife does pretty well with the eating restrictions but somewhere around the middle of the holiday, there she is eating cereal in the garage. That’s where I store the chametz, the bread products that are off-limits during Passover, to make the rest of the house ready for the holiday. I “sell” it to a friend or neighbor who isn’t Jewish but is intrigued enough to play along. (That ensures that I don’t technically own it and it can stay there as long as it’s undisturbed.) But there it sits, calling out to Kirsti all week. Each bite of matzah brie and cardboard flavored Passover cereal increases her longing for the good stuff she knows is only steps away. Do I care? No, I have never cared. I have always drawn a line between my own, personal practice and hers. I need to clean the house of bread. I need to bring out the glass plates. But Kirsti didn’t grow up Jewish, and while many Jewish practices are meaningful to her, this one is not.

Now enter two kids. None of these differences in our practices made an impact on our home life until we had children. While she can practice however she likes, I do want to maintain a Jewish household for our kids. In similar cases, we tend to face our differences head on, explaining to our children where our beliefs or practices may differ from one another.

Many parents who come from different backgrounds will only tell one parent’s side of things until kids get older and can better handle the paradoxes. I see the value in that approach, but it’s not for us. We have always told the truth about where we differ religiously…for better or for worse. We have different ideas about theology and share with our boys that people generally—and even Jews—don’t all believe the same thing. We have different needs in terms of attending synagogue, and I am happy to be the regular Shabbat service goer with them, explaining that while she’ll go sometimes, it’s more of a regular practice for me.

But Passover is tough because it’s centered in the house. Do I want them to learn that it’s OK to run to the garage when they have a craving? I don’t need my partner to keep to it, but I want them to learn the discipline early on as a meaningful part of the Passover celebration. I want them to internalize their history as slaves being freed as they stop themselves instead of reaching for some bread. I hope they will share the excitement with me when the kitchen gets turned upside down to get ready for the holiday. But I also don’t want to denigrate my partner’s practices by making them lesser. I respect her and her relationship to Judaism. How do I hold both realities?

In truth, I’ve never lived in a house where we were all practicing Judaism in the same way.  I grew up in a home with two Jewish parents for whom Jewish eating practices held no meaning. We always laughed that it wasn’t Passover if there wasn’t a honey-baked ham on the table. OK, we never went that far, but ham and seafood were staples in our home. My mother would proudly say, “I don’t practice my religion through my stomach.” But even as a kid, I was drawn to the idea that refraining from bread made the week of my favorite holiday feel special, and I worked around my family’s need for their cupboards to remain untouched.

So we talked to our kids this Passover about the realities of different kinds of Jewish practice. They were informed that their Mommy sneaks some chametz (not surprising since they already knew that although she has tried valiantly to give them up over the years, she has a soft spot for cheeseburgers). But we didn’t dwell on the food-talk. What we did spend time discussing were the values we hope they took away from the holiday. Standing up for those who are oppressed. Using your own story of pain and difference to inspire you to rescue others. That freedom is possible. And for my partner, we know that her freedom is saying farewell to matzah for another year.

Learn About Your Partner’s Heritage

Even if You Don’t Plan To Convert, You Should Learn About Your Partner’s Religious Heritage: The Value of Introduction to Judaism Classes

Intro classWhen I was in rabbinical school in the late 1990s and in the years following my ordination in 2000 I had the great pleasure of teaching the Reform movement’s 16 week Introduction to Judaism class. I found it incredibly rewarding to have the privilege of exposing my students to the fundamentals of Jewish thought and practice. While a few of the students in my classes were Jews who wanted to learn more about their religious heritage, the vast majority of students were not Jewish but had Jewish partners and they registered for the class because they were considering becoming Jewish. In those days, like today, many Reform rabbis required that conversion students with whom they were working take the Intro class as one of the requirements for conversion.

At the first class session, I would always invite the students to introduce themselves and to share why they had signed up for the class. Often, after saying a few words about himself, a student would say:  “And I plan to convert once I’ve completed this class.” Sometimes, the student who said this had been married to a Jewish person for years, raised Jewish children, been a part of a synagogue community and already knew a lot about what it mean to be Jewish. In those cases, the Intro class was the final step in a long process, and the person speaking truly knew what was involved in choosing to become Jewish.

Other times, the student who said this was someone who was dating or perhaps was engaged to someone Jewish, but he admittedly knew very little about Judaism. In those cases, I would encourage him to have an open mind and to learn as much as possible about Judaism—both in and out of class—and to defer making any decision until he had a better sense of what it meant to be Jewish. Then, if living a Jewish life was truly compelling to him, conversion would be the right path for him to take.

As a rabbi—and as someone who loves being Jewish and believes that Judaism brings meaning to my life and to the world—I think it’s wonderful when someone chooses to become Jewish. I have served on many b’tei din (rabbinic courts) for people becoming Jewish, and I have always found the experience to be incredibly powerful. It is truly an honor to be part of a person’s process of becoming Jewish—as long as the person is becoming Jewish for the right reason—that is, because she truly wants to be Jewish…not because her partner, or partner’s parents, want her to be Jewish. To me, serving on a bet din where someone is converting for the purpose of making a partner or other relative happy would be a mockery of the conversion process. Which is exactly why I would tell students in my Intro class who were just beginning to learn about Judaism: “Take your time, learn about Judaism and THEN decide if you want to convert.” And even if the student who was dating, engaged or married to a Jewish person never made the decision to convert, they would have learned about—and presumably developed a greater respect for—their Jewish partner’s religion in the process of taking the class.

Ten to 15 years ago, when I was teaching Introduction to Judaism classes, there were lots of students in the classes. I think that this was in part due to the fact that the liberal Jewish community put a lot of pressure on Jews marrying people of other faiths to convince their partners to convert to Judaism. For a number of reasons, this has changed. Thanks to the work of many individuals and of organizations like InterfaithFamily, the liberal Jewish community has become more welcoming to interfaith couples and families. Parents who aren’t Jewish—even if they are actively practicing another religion—can be part of their Jewish child’s religious upbringing…not just driving their children to and from Religious School, but learning alongside their children, participating in synagogue and Jewish communal activities and having a role in their Jewish children’s lifecycle events. Perhaps that explains why some of the Introduction to Judaism classes near where I live in Philadelphia are having trouble attracting enough students these days. Conversion to Judaism, and the intro classes that are an essential part of the conversion process are no longer seen in many liberal Jewish circles as the “necessity” that they once were.

However, just because someone whose partner is Jewish does not intend to convert, and may intend to continue practicing his or her own religion, I don’t think that they should refrain from enrolling in a class such as the Reform Movement’s Introduction to Judaism or other similar class. In Philadelphia, for example, the Conservative Moment sponsors the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, which offers a 30-week Introduction to Judaism class twice yearly to learn about Judaism. There’s tremendous value to learning about the history, beliefs and traditions of your partner’s religious heritage. For example, in a recent blog, InterfaithFamily wedding blogger Anne Keefe writes about how she, a practicing Catholic, is taking an Introduction to Judaism class not because she is thinking about conversion, but to learn more about her fiancé Sam’s religion.

I would encourage anyone who is seriously involved with a Jewish partner to consider learning more about Judaism. Similarly, I would encourage any Jewish person in an interfaith relationship to learn about their partner’s religion. Regardless of your own religious beliefs or practices, it can only benefit your relationship to learn more about your partner’s religious heritage.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you are in an interfaith relationship. If you are not Jewish but your partner is, have you taken an Introduction to Judaism or other similar class? If so, what was the experience like for you? If you are Jewish, have you taken a class to learn about your partner’s religious heritage? What class did you take? What other steps have you taken to learn about your partner’s religious beliefs and traditions?

Opening the Gates

Leading up to and during my vacation there have been three big intermarriage stories in the media. They all revolve around whether, and how, Jewish communities are going to open their gates and draw in interfaith couples and families.

First came a JTA story by Uriel Heilman, The War Against Intermarriage Has Been Lost. Now What? The title pretty much tells the content of the article: Jewish institutions and in particular religious denominations are not “fighting against intermarriage” so much any more; the question now is how to react to the intermarriages that are going to happen; the overall strategy appears to be to engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism; the denominations differ in how far to go in that embrace, and how strongly to push for conversion. Heilman says there has been a shift in attitudes so that intermarriage is viewed as “a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.”

I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is – there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders – and I think it’s unfortunate to see gain only when there is conversion. But the real issue is, what are Jewish institutions and denominations going to do to engage with the intermarried. I would be more interested in seeing a JTA article on the efforts that are underway to do exactly that.

Second was a series of three essays on MyJewishLearning.com about patrilineal descent. A Conservative rabbi, Alana Suskin, in The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent, tells how badly she feels about not recognizing patrilineal Jews as Jewish in large part because it’s easy to convert. Then an Orthodox rabbi, Ben Greenberg, in Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach, also feels badly, and says that a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel… people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.” But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbis’ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a “balcony perspective” because of the impact the decision had on recognition of people as Jews by other denominations.

I would say, from what I would respectfully suggest is perhaps a more important “balcony perspective,” what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldn’t help but make this connection when reading the Forward’s profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader – and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahl’s essay originally in Sh’ma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to “reaffirm her Jewish legacy.”)

The Reform rabbi who wrote for MJL, Rachel Gurevitz, I think gets it right. In Patrilineal Descent: Why This Rabbi Feels No Angst she first acknowledges Rabbi Greenberg’s concern with complications for klal yisrael but says

[T]his is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.

Rabbi Gurevitz then focuses on what I would agree is most important:

[T]he individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.

The third major story was an excerpt of a “live discussion” on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilman’s perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I don’t have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that “invariably,” in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage “almost always” results in a diminishment of Judaism. That is the first reason he gives for not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. I would respectfully suggest that the chances of the children being raised as Jewish and the chances of the intermarriage not resulting in “diminishment” would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpe’s rationale.

Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesn’t officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isn’t Jewish isn’t subject to Jewish law. I can’t argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that it’s “bad faith” for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isn’t representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true “at least for me” but it comes across as a cheap shot at all of the serious committed rabbis who do officiate for interfaith couples

The common thread of all of this press is, how open are our gates going to be – in our efforts to engage interfaith couples and families, in who we recognize as Jews, and in for whom we officiate. Those are the key questions. I’m for wide open gates.

Now back to vacation.

The Invasion of Skokie

In discussing interfaith marriage, language matters. I was reminded of this truth in watching the play Invasion of Skokie. The play pivots on the 1978 Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois. At the time, Skokie had a very high percentage of Holocaust survivor residents. The American Nazi party petitioned the city of Skokie for the right to hold the march there.

When the city granted the motion on the grounds of free speech, the city erupted in tension. Jews were on both sides of the issue. Some strong free speech advocates contended that no matter how heinous and offensive the Nazi message was, the First Amendment guaranteed them the right to march. A larger group, including many survivors, condemned the march and, according to the play, took up arms as a means of defense.

The play revolves around one family in which this tension plays out. The father opposes the march and works with a group arming themselves to fight the Nazis. His daughter supports the rights of the marchers, even as she finds their message horrible. The third character is known as the “Shabbos Goy,playing on an ancient (and to our ears, a very offensive) designation of a non-Jewish person who turns lights and stoves on and off in a Jewish home or synagogue on Sabbath when observant Jews are forbidden from doing so.

Eventually the daughter falls in love with him, and tension begins to play out between the father and daughter. When they ask for his blessing for their marriage, the father says no unless he converts. All of this story is playing against the background of the Nazi march. The fiancé says no to conversion, explaining that he does not share their faith even as he loves their daughter and respects Judaism.

As I led a discussion group after the play, I realized the importance of language in speaking to interfaith couples. Had the father not dismissed the potential marriage or focused immediately on conversion, I think the couple would have responded differently. Their relationship with him would have played out differently. We would have experienced a more honest and open discussion.

That is one of the lessons we teach at InterfaithFamily. When we see the issues of Jewish identity and family in black and white terms; when we think that conversion is the only way to have Judaism in the home, we often close the doors for future Jewish life.

The play brought up many feelings some still hold. If we care about passing on Judaism to the next generation, then we have to listen, accept and love. We fill find that there will be openings for Judaism to live vibrantly for couples and families who have been welcomed and supported.

Leaders By Choice

There is a fascinating new issue of Sh’ma just out on the topic “leaders by choice.” InterfaithFamily’s Board Chair Mamie Kanfer Stewart, in No Conversion Required, writes:

[W]e have an opportunity to reframe the question, “Who is a Jew?” into “Who is part of the Jewish community?” Rather than focusing on Jewish status, we can honor everyone, Jewish or not, who is bringing the riches of Jewish traditions and sensibilities to our lives.

Our Board member, Lydia Kukoff, in Radical Choices: Conversion and Leadership, concludes:

One doesn’t have to be born a Jew to become a Jew and to be a Jewish leader. Are we ready to create a thoughtful campaign that welcomes non-Jews who profess no religion and encourage them to explore Judaism? The midrash teaches that Abraham and Sarah opened all four corners of their tent to welcome the stranger. Sarah converted the women and Abraham converted the men. How open are we?

The issue includes many other points of view and is well worth reading!