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As an avid follower of the hit show, New Girl, I couldn’t pass up an article in Us Weekly about its star, Zooey Deschanel, converting to Judaism. The headline revealed that she converted for her husband, producer Jacob Pechenik. “The things we do for love!” began the article, which went so far as to say that she “made a grand gesture” by deciding to join the Jewish people for him.
I know that many people within the Jewish community frown upon the idea that someone converted “for” someone else. We often have an idealized kind of conversion in our minds: Someone discovers Judaism on their own, learns about it and seeks a community, studies toward conversion until they are immersed in Jewish life and ultimately take the plunge into the Mikveh (ritual bath necessary for conversion by Jewish law). They might speak of having a “yiddishe neshama,” a Jewish soul that has found its rightful home. We especially love it when this conversion candidate far surpasses what Jews who grew up with the tradition know or practice.
This is a great image, and I have worked with dozens of such Jews-to-be over the years as a rabbi. It is incredibly gratifying to study with someone who is so drawn to our tradition. But it is not the way everyone comes to join our community. Since our earliest history, individuals have joined and strengthened our people because they fell in love. Abraham heard the call of God and became the first adherent to this new faith. But God didn’t speak directly to Sarah; she trusted her husband that this was a revolutionary way to live and a God worthy of uprooting her life.
She followed her husband.
Countless others followed, building up what we now know as the Jewish people. We would not exist were it not for all of the individuals who loved someone who was part of this community. Were they lesser? Would we challenge their commitment?
I work with so many interfaith couples in which a partner is considering conversion but battles with this notion that one might only be converting “for” someone else. My reply is, “Wow, you would consider converting to our tradition because you love this person that much? That is a beautiful thing.” I would never suggest or urge someone to make this commitment, but if they think it might be the right step for them, I hope they don’t get stuck on an image of what an “ideal” Jew-by-choice is like.
If they are passionate about this move, I want to support them without questioning their motives. I have to admit that I do have an ideal scenario in my mind. This person hopefully studies and begins to practice Judaism… along with their Jewish partner who, often times, may not know too much about Judaism either. Together, they discover meaningful practices along with a vibrant community that speaks to the home and life they are creating together. That process may feel spiritual, but it might also feel practical or logical. That is for each Jew to determine, and people who convert shouldn’t be held to a different standard than other Jews.
Of course, conversion is not for everyone. We have finally arrived at a moment in contemporary Judaism in which many communities and leaders view “fellow travelers” who have not chosen to convert as having an important role as members of the Jewish community. Anyone who enters the door to Jewish life should be welcome, no matter what their status. And, of course, no one should be coerced into converting. Ideally, everyone who decides to make the commitment to become Jewish is doing so on their own terms, even Zooey. But let’s not judge people’s decisions when they do follow someone into our tradition… let’s celebrate the fact that they love someone that much.
Have questions about conversion? Check out our conversion FAQ.
This year our sukkah is unkosher. It has no walls.
According to traditional Jewish law, a sukkah is supposed to have walls – four of them, actually, though one of them can be the side of a house if it’s been built up against a house. The walls can be made out of any material, but they have to be strong enough to withstand some wind without falling down.
Our sukkah has no walls because, in the midst of many challenges, we didn’t get around to putting them up. But that’s not the only reason. I confess that my wife and I also kind of like the way the sukkah looks and feels inside this way. A sukkah without walls is an appropriate religious symbol for our family.
Our nuclear family consists of four people and two dogs. It’s me, a liberal rabbi; Melissa, my spouse, who was my intermarried partner for part of the time I was a rabbinical student, before she converted; and Clarice and Hunter, neither of whom was born Jewish, and both of whom were old enough at the time of the adoption to have the right to decide whether or not to become Jewish. So far, they haven’t, at least not formally. On a day to day basis they alternate between identifying Jewishly and not. So, while neither of our kids identify with another religion, because, at least halakhically (according to Jewish law), they’re not Jewish, we are what gets referred to as an interfaith family.
For me, our sukkah without walls symbolizes Melissa’s and my core value of openness to welcoming the stranger deeply into our home and life. There’s a framework, a structure to our sukkah, as well as a roof made of foliage, and a lulav and an etrog too. Anyone who knows what a sukkah is who saw ours would know that it is a sukkah, or someone’s good try at erecting a proper sukkah. But our sukkah, perhaps inspired by Abraham and Sarah’s tent, is literally open on all sides. Like a sukkah with the traditionally prescribed walls that won’t fall down in a gust of wind, our “open architecture” sukkah also can withstand a gust of wind, but it accomplishes that feat not by resisting the movement of the air with sturdy barriers; rather, the changing winds blow right on through. (Metaphor now fully expressed, and possibly even overdone…)
Our sukkah without walls also speaks to me because our extended families consist of a really wide assortment of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living on different continents, practicing different religions, and speaking different languages.Our open sukkah reminds me of the huppah at our wedding, where Melissa’s down home conservative evangelical country relatives mixed with my loud and effusive Moroccan-Israeli clan. Everyone was welcome. Jewish traditions, practiced with some creative deviation from traditional Jewish law (Melissa wasn’t Jewish at the time, after all), defined the space, but with very open access to people of many faiths and identities.
Our sukkah also represents, for me, what I call our local family of choice. Our dear friend, Ariel,* was the single mother of four kids when we first met her and began helping each other parent our collective half dozen children with different challenges. Because of what our kids went through to end up in the foster care system, we needed the strength and support of others to parent them without falling apart. And because Ariel, who was accepted to law school and is the hardest working person we know, grew up in foster care herself, she’s a great model of resilience to our kids, and she really gets them in ways that we don’t. We’ve been able to help each other out in countless ways, and our daughter practically thinks of Ariel as another parent.
Ariel, by the way, is Baha’i. A little over a year ago I officiated at her wedding to Nathan,* who is Christian, and he and his son from a previous marriage are now part of this growing hybridized nuclear fusion Brady Bunch. (Full disclosure: One of our two dogs is actually their dog, staying with us for the time being.)
The boundaries between our two families are kind of like, well, our sukkah without walls. There are structures there between our families that are real and that operate every day. And yet, there’s also a very easy flow between our families and our homes, even our vehicles. (You can tell this because the empty cups and food wrappers on the floors of our cars are a mixed multitude of representatives of our various bad food choice preferences.)
I’m not seeking pity with what I’m about to say, but one of the painful things in my life, as a rabbi and even just as a Jew, is that I’m all too aware that for a part of the Jewish community, it’s not just my sukkah that’s unkosher, but our family is kind of unkosher too. A previously intermarried rabbinical student? That’s not kosher! A spouse of a rabbi who converted but not in an Orthodox way? For some, that means I’m still an intermarried rabbi. Totally unkosher (well, maybe not anymore). A rabbi’s family and their kids aren’t Jewish?! It’s like it’s raining pork and shellfish. On Shabbos.
There are some Jewish thought leaders who argue that it’s families like ours that are putting the future of the Jewish people at risk. There are too many different identities in the household, they say, and the boundaries aren’t strong enough to promote Jewish children, and aren’t rabbis supposed to be exemplars of Jewish lives that are more emphatically and unambiguously Jewish? Well, I suppose I can’t prove that these critics are wrong, though the truth is that they don’t know for a certainty what will or won’t make for a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future. I think their claims tell us more about their values and preferences than about how the future is or isn’t going to unfold.
The same can be said about my values and preferences, I admit. My values and preferences favor a Judaism of open and welcoming structures, of joyful and sincere practices shared with people of any background freely, and of flexibility and trusting the unknown. Perhaps my marriage will not produce any children who become Jewish adults raising Jewish children, and perhaps, therefore, we’ll be judged by some as a failed Jewish family, a Jewish continuity dead end.
But here’s the thing. Because of our life choices, it’s not just our two kids who know what a sukkah is and have helped build and decorate a sukkah and have heard Melissa and me talk about the themes of trust and welcoming guests and vulnerability. It’s not just our kids who have, again, broken the pitom (the stem) off ouretrog halfway through the holiday, thus rendering the etrog unkosher like our sukkah, and who have had to hear me discover this and yell, “Dammit! Who the hell broke off the pitom!? That’s the first thing you learn you’re not supposed to do! And it cost, like, forty dollars!” It’s also Ariel’s kids, who’ve had great fun in our sukkah over the years, as have Nathan, and his son, and some of our neighbors. And because the rabbinical seminary I attended didn’t turn me away, despite my way of doing Jewish, and neither did the synagogue I served for 8 years, I’ve taught and worked with well over a hundred kids in helping them to develop a Jewish identity of warmth, pride, and ethics. And sorry to be all bragging on myself, but I’ve also had two Jewish non-fiction books published, both of which strive to open access to Judaism to people of all faiths.
So maybe our unkosher family and our unkosher sukkah is a symbol of the demise of liberal Judaism. Could be. Or maybe it’s something else, maybe even something wonderful.
* names have been changed
I went to a small Episcopalian school in the heart of the South. It was a very homogeneous Protestant community (but not without some Jews as well) with a distinguished Southern heritage that included some families that even had family crests. The graduating class had 65 kids. Fifteen of us were Jewish.
I recently attended my 30th reunion and connected with people whom I hadn’t spoken to (or even thought of) in years. In a school that small, we were all pretty good friends and it was a lot more fun than I anticipated. It warmed my heart to know that people who I have barely kept in touch with are doing well in their lives and it was fun to catch up. Several people asked where I worked and I mentioned that I worked for an organization that assists interfaith couples and families where one of the partners is Jewish—what a conversation starter!
My friend Robert was first. He mentioned that his wife was Jewish. He told me that when they got engaged, she asked if he was surprised that he was marrying a Jewish girl. His response was “No. I knew a lot of Jewish kids and so I am very comfortable around Jewish people. What really surprises me is that I am a Southern boy marrying a girl from New Jersey!”
My friend Jason was next. Jason and I reconnected a few years back. Our conversation was a bit different. He casually mentioned that his daughter was named Aviva (a name that is typically Jewish or Israeli), and since he is not Jewish, that was my first clue. We were chatting and he said he was a bit disappointed that he was missing the vote for his synagogue’s new rabbi. I said “Oh, are you not allowed to vote on synagogue issues?” His response: “Nope, I can’t vote because I am out of town and the vote is tomorrow morning!”
Then there was Ashley. Ashley lives in New York. We spoke for a few minutes before she mentioned that she had converted. I said “converted to what?” She laughed, “to Judaism!” It took me a few seconds to process that the Jewish population from my Southern school was increasing! Then she mentioned that most people are really nice about welcoming her into the Jewish community. But just last week, she was at a gathering and an 8-year-old relative of her husband’s asked if she was Jewish. The parents and family members were mortified but everyone quickly responded with a resounding “of course!”
It is mind-blowing to think that some of my Christian friends from my high school class are raising Jewish kids. I wonder if our group of Jewish kids were ambassadors in some way but didn’t realize it. We introduced the Christian members of our class to Judaism and fun
Though I have to say, I am not so surprised that one of my Southern Christian friends from my class married someone from New Jersey!
This post is based on an article by Rabbi Copeland that originally appeared on jweekly.com
There have always been Jews-by-association. Nowadays this term, JBA for short, is becoming well known as a catch-all category for people who hang out with Jews, including people who gravitate toward Judaism, have many Jewish friends, or are partnered with someone Jewish. But the only thing that is new about the category is the name.
Throughout our history, there have been categories of people who cast their lots with the Jewish people but, for a variety of reasons, were never fully integrated into Judaism. Some may have wanted to become fully Jewish, others not. But common to all of them was that they walked a common path with Jews.
We are about to celebrate Shavuot, the holiday when we study the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Jew-by-Association. She married one Israelite, followed her mother-in-law back to their people after his death, and then married a second Israelite. She is hailed as the first convert, but historically, conversion did not yet exist as a mechanism one could undergo to become part of Judaism. What she did do was utter the words, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people.” [Ruth 1:16] She declared herself a fellow traveler.
But Ruth wasn’t the only one. A person who walked the path with us in the Torah was in the category of the ger toshav, the resident stranger who lived among the early Israelites and was to observe the same rituals and laws. There is even a rationale for treating the ger toshav like an Israelite: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 19:34] The presence of this group of people was perhaps a daily reminder of the lessons we learned from our enslavement.
These resident strangers were even included in the ceremony of covenant when the community heard the law from Moses in Moab [Dt. 29:9-11]: “You stand here this day, all of you, before YHWH Your God-your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp—to enter into the covenant”. Just as they were not full Israelites, they were not considered foreigners either.
There was also the erev rav, the mixed multitude who left the slavery of Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites [Nu.15:16]. Later in our history, during the second temple period, there was a category of Jews-by-association called “God-fearers” who, like the other categories, were people who aligned themselves with the Jewish people. Since there was no such thing as conversion, such strangers among us were left as they were—people who clearly cast their lot with the Jewish people.
In our time, there are countless people who reside within Jewish communities who consider themselves fellow travelers. Now, we draw a sharper line between those who are Jewish and those who are not. As of the early centuries CE, we do have a way for people to become fully integrated into Judaism: Conversion. But as that category has become more and more solidified, there has been less and less space for people who don’t fit neatly into one group or the other.
Conversion should be celebrated. But we should also take time to celebrate those who would have fallen nicely into one of these historical categories as fellow travelers who do not wish to convert.
People walk the path with the Jewish people because they love someone Jewish or feel an affinity with Judaism. Many are helping to raise Jewish kids, keeping this tradition thriving into the next generation. As we celebrate Shavuot, let this season of Ruth be an invitation to appreciate our many fellow travelers.
Today on eJewishPhilanthropy, Allison McMillan wrote an important piece, “Intermarried, Not Interfaith.” Her husband was an atheist when they met, had no religious connection to any holidays, is exploring Jewish traditions quite extensively, and has decided not to convert, in her words, “at least not right now.” She says their biggest issue is that they are labeled an “interfaith couple,” a term which “does not describe who or what we are. We are not trying to join two faiths together in our relationship. He is not halachically Jewish but he is also not anything else.”
I posted a response that I’d like to expand on here. For us at InterfaithFamily, the term “interfaith” does not connote anything about religious practice. It does not mean a couple that is practicing two faiths or trying to join two faiths together, or a couple where one partner is practicing one faith and the other is practicing no faith. It doesn’t mean a couple that is raising children “both” or in two faiths. “Interfaith” in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background, and one comes from another faith tradition or background. In the context of a family it simply means a family that includes one or more Jews and one or more people from different faith traditions.
We think that the term “interfaith” has become what in the legal field would be called a “term of art,” meaning a word that has an acquired meaning that may not be clear from the term itself. We think that most people coming from the Jewish world understand the term “interfaith” the way we do. And we hope that people like Allison could come to understand the term in that way, and not be bothered or offended by it.
Allison writes that there are “plenty of different phrases that can and should be used in place of interfaith,” but doesn’t say what phrase she would prefer. Over the past fourteen years I’ve heard many unsatisfactory suggestions. “Intermarried” doesn’t work because not everyone is, or, sadly, can be married. “Mixed” as in “mixed-married” or “mixed-faith” is old fashioned, “mixed” has a negative tone, and it’s not more clear or precise than “interfaith.” “Intercultural” or “inter-heritaged” (if that’s even a term) doesn’t work because Judaism is or certainly can be more than a culture or a heritage. No term is perfect to describe couples and families with members that come from Jewish background and another faith tradition – and we say that no term is better to describe such couples and families than “interfaith.”
Allison writes in her article that her and her husband’s situation is not black and white, and we certainly agree with her that there are “many shades of gray.” But as we use the term, “interfaith family” is very inclusive, of both immediate and extended families – interfaith couples where one person comes from a Jewish background and one come from another background, couples that include converts to Judaism who still have relatives who are not Jewish, people with one Jewish parent, parents of intermarried children, grandparents of children being raised by intermarried parents, etc.
Interfaith families may include those who identify their family as Jewish, as more than one religion, or who are unsure of how they identify. Our organization’s goal – which we are working to make the goal of many more Jews and Jewish organizations – is to meet these families where they are and facilitate deeper connection to Jewish life. Hopefully we can live with the limitations of terminology and all work toward that important goal.
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch
I 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.
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.
A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.
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.