A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted to Jewschool.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

Israel Doesn’t Want Reform Converts?

There is a very powerful op-ed in the New York Jewish Week today, Israel Doesn’t Want a Reform Convert Like Me by Rabbi Heidi Hoover who serves as rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn.

Jewish status in Israel is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, and conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis – and now even under by some Orthodox rabbis – are not recognized. Because Rabbi Hoover converted to Judaism under Reform auspices, her conversion is not recognized, and she concludes, “Israel doesn’t want me.”

I think Rabbi Hoover is exactly right when she says,

One of the messages that American Jews receive relentlessly is that we need to support Israel. There is much hand wringing over the perceived lessening of American Jewish connection to Israel among teens and young adults, and even among rabbinical students. I believe this lessening of connection is in part due to a growing number of American Jews who cannot fully live as Jews in Israel because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate….

The question of Jewish status depends on who you are asking, or whose opinion you care about. Rabbi Hoover tells people in her congregation who are converts under liberal auspices, and people who identify as Jewish whose mothers were not Jewish, that “they are, in fact, Jewish,” but she wants them to be prepared that there are those who will not recognize them as such. That’s important, especially for the many young adults raised as Jews in interfaith families whose Jewish status would be questioned by others.

I think Rabbi Hoover also is exactly right when she concludes,

It is crucial that American Jews of all denominations join to support religious pluralism in Israel, and in the United States as well. We need to find ways to respect and recognize each other’s conversions and life-cycle rituals. There are not so many of us that we can afford to be divided, and if Israel continues to disenfranchise American Jews, she cannot expect their support to continue indefinitely.

Welcoming in Philadelphia

Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.

Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:

For many interfaith families, the wedding ceremony is the point of entry into Jewish life and also a potential point of tension and conflict. A new group, InterfaithFamily, has just set up shop in Philadelphia to help families navigate such obstacles, from finding a rabbi to officiate to helping them feel more welcome. It could be the biggest local development in interfaith engagement in years.

We certainly hope we are!

For more than two decades, there was a conflict within much of the Jewish community over whether to adopt a more open, welcoming attitude toward interfaith families. Those opposed to embracing such families argued that intermarriage was threatening the future of the Jewish people and communal organizations needed to redouble their efforts to prevent such marriages from taking place.

Though the debate still goes on, decision-makers who favor a more open approach now appear to hold sway at many local communal organizations and congregations.

The 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” revealed that the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40 in the five-county region, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.

Those results raised calls for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which sponsored the study, and other groups to come up with ways to reach this population and encourage parents to educate and raise their children as Jews.

One way Federation has responded is by facilitating the merger of two organizations. InterFaithways, a small, local organization that has struggled financially in the last few years, has become part of InterfaithFamily, a 13-year-old organization with a national reputation that recently opened branches in San Francisco and Chicago. (The legal process of merging locally is expected to be completed by the new year.)

InterfaithFamily’s local branch will maintain a comprehensive database of clergy members who will perform interfaith ceremonies as well as provide other services. The group will also introduce two new educational initiatives, first introduced in Chicago, that are aimed at interfaith couples.

But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.

There’s an interesting editorial piece on welcoming interfaith couples/families. It starts:

For those not inclined to bury their heads in the sand, it’s time to recognize an established fact: The tide has turned when it comes to intermarriage. While many of us rightly worry about the long-term impact of the escalating number of intermarriages on our community, it is wiser to address the issue openly and honestly than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Then there’s an opinion column from a rabbi, addressing how synagogues and rabbis might welcome (“embrace”) intermarried couples and their families.

And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.

Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.

Where Are Your Kinsmen?

I recently officiated a wedding in which there were only a few Jewish people there (and I was one of them). I had met the now bride a few years ago, when she came to me to study about Judaism. She had grown up with Christianity and as an adult was searching. She had always been interested in Judaism, loved the rituals and traditions, and felt she might be home with the people Israel. After a year of regular study, she went to the mikveh and formally cast her lot with the Jewish people. She lit the Sabbath candles and even taught in the early childhood room in the congregation where I was the educator.

A couple of years later, this Jew fell in love with someone who was raised Christian. She came to me again to officiate their wedding. I met with this couple several times to talk about the meaning of the Jewish wedding rituals and to unpack the Jewish wedding liturgy. This couple participated in InterfaithFamily’s Love and Religion — Online workshop. They were able to share with other couples about how they would weave Judaism into their lives and involve their Christian family in holidays and traditions. They had a small wedding of mostly family and almost everyone there were raised with Christianity.

When I stood with them under the chuppah and explained to all present about what they were going to see and hear, my fear was that it would feel anthropological in nature. That people were observing a Jewish wedding but would not be able to participate in it themselves. I was wrong. All present understood the meaning of the open chuppah being a symbol of their home, open to friends and relatives with unconditional hospitality. All understood the symbol of sharing a sip of sweet wine to be a symbol of the beauty of creation and the beauty of what this couple was creating. All understood the seven wedding blessings to be about affirming the potential in human beings to combine love, wisdom and courage and to forge a life of joy and gratitude. All understood the breaking of the glass to be about the fragility of life and finding joy within sorrow. All understood that Judaism had become meaningful not only to the bride, but to her supportive partner and that it could be accessible and meaningful to their whole family.

What I hope for this couple is that they find a Jewish community that can also support them. I have directed them to Jewish communal institutions that provide fellowship and classes for couples just like them. I will encourage them to participate in an Introduction to Judaism class sponsored by Reform Jewish Chicago. But it will be friends and Jewish lay and professional leaders who will help this couple sustain and strengthen their Jewish home and Jewish involvement.

I was meeting with Anita Silvert (who wears many hats in Chicago — she co-chairs Limmud Chicago (look for me there, details to come!) as well as directs a new program in Chicago called Chai Mitzvah). She was telling me today of her hopes to start a cohort of around eight people who are either in an interfaith relationship (either the Jewish partner or partner who isn’t Jewish) or people touched by interfaith families personally. This group would meet once a month to study Jewish texts and each would participate in social justice work throughout the year (serving a cause or charity of interest). Lastly, each would take on a new spiritual practice, guided by a mentor. As she was telling me about the program, she taught me a Rashi teaching from Numbers 5:8, “If a man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord for the priest…” Rashi, a medeival rabbi and important scholar, asks how an Israelite could possibly have no kinsmen, no family, no people. He concludes that this verse must be talking about the ger, a convert.

I could not believe how fitting it was that Anita shared this teaching with me exactly when I was thinking about this wedding of a Jew by choice. We need to make sure that all in the community have people, have kinsmen. That is our sacred and holy task.

If you would like more information about either our Love and Religion — Online workshop for interfaith couples or the Chai Mitzvah program, email me at arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Insights on Engaging Interfaith Families from the NY Community Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Language, Inclusion and Entry Points

I recently spent an hour with college juniors, talking about how the Jewish community can respond to interfaith couples and families.  There was resistance when I suggested that synagogue websites translate all Hebrew/Yiddish terms and any insider language so that anybody new to Judaism – a new member of a Jewish family or anyone Jewish who lacks this knowledge – can fully access the content, and its meaning, on the website. I have encountered similar resistance when suggesting religious school or preschool teachers take on this same practice when sending emails home or having students work on projects.

For instance, if a class makes a “hamotzi placemat” (a placemat that includes the blessing over bread), the prayer could be pasted to their placemat in Hebrew, English and transliteration so that any parent can use it with the child. I have wondered why there would be resistance to this simple idea for sensitivity and inclusion. The comments I have heard in opposition to this are that parents will think that nobody knows anything Jewish in this synagogue or that the message gets watered down or dumbed down if no Hebrew can be assumed to be known. Others have said that it is so easy in the age of Google to look something up that if there was real interest in learning the Hebrew or the term it could be easily ascertained. If we make things too easy for folks, they will not take the initiative to learn it themselves, which is empowering.

I have been caught off guard by these statements. I hadn’t thought there could possibly be resistance to making Judaism as accessible and meaningful as possible.

As I have tried to unpack this dilemma, here is the insight I have come up with: I think the idea that people who aren’t Jewish will require the Jewish community (members of a synagogue, religious school or preschool teachers, or Jewish family members) to offer translations and explanations, could, potentially point out the community’s own inadequacies or illiteracy with Hebrew and Jewish terminology and this feels threatening or unsettling.

I wonder how many of us could translate the name of our congregation into English or the names of most major holidays into English? This is in no way a critique of anybody with a lack of knowledge. Hebrew, even when translated directly into English, sometimes needs extra explanation and context. (“sukkot">Festival of Booths” comes to mind.)

Sometimes people who grew up Jewish just know or “get” something cultural while not being able to articulate it easily. Some Jewish people may want to remain in a tight-knit community in which there is a sacred language (even when not exactly understood, the individual still finds meaning). Being insular in some ways, set-apart and even having insider language feels authentic and means continuity for some. One would think that meaning leads to continuity but maybe Hebrew leads to continuity through connectedness to the past and particularism. Maybe one doesn’t have to understand everything to have meaning. And my asking people to translate everything demystifies it in some ways and makes the message too secular and mundane.

This has been an interesting conundrum for me to think about. I look forward to hearing your insights!

Love and Religion is Starting in August

I have blogged about the workshops and classes that we offer through InterfaithFamily/Chicago. This time, I want to go into more depth about a workshop we offer four times a year: Love and Religion – Online.

[table][tr][td][/td][td] Developed by a psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling, Love and Religion is offered throughout the country, usually housed in Jewish community centers. If you are not in Chicago and you or someone you know would like to take part in a Love and Religion workshop, it is highly possible a JCC near you is or could offer it. Just [email=marionusher@aol.com]email Dr. Marion Usher[/email], the creator of the program, [/td][/tr][/table]to ask her where and when it is being offered. In Chicago we have already offered the workshop twice and we have two more sessions coming up in August and October.

This program is only four sessions long. It is meant for interfaith couples (where one partner is Jewish and the other partner is not (whether or not they practice another religion) or is new to Judaism) who are engaged or were married within the last couple of years. The first night we meet, we treat all of the couples to dinner in the city so that we can get to know each other. The next 3 sessions take place from the comfort of your own home: couples use WebEx’s video conferencing on their computers or smart phones. So, for four Thursdays you devote an hour to thinking about your relationship, about religion and spirituality, and about which traditions you find important and want to establish in your home.

The couples participating in the past two sessions have felt that their understanding of their partner (and other couples) increased through this sharing process. They nodded their heads as each one told of the feelings they had for their partner when they met; they shared so much camaraderie around coming from two different religions. For many couples, the fact that they are two different religions is not a big deal; neither family expressed concerned about this. In lots of cases, either or both partners grew up with family members of different religions and celebrated all of the holidays with joy and cheer. The specifics of theological or cultural differences seem minimal in comparison to the sense that they have found their soul mate. This workshop does not create issues where there are none. It does help couples come to articulate aspects of what’s important to them religiously that maybe they hadn’t yet thought about. And, of course, couples makes decisions about a whole host of major life issues over time and with change. This workshop helps set a foundation for making those decisions together as they arise.

The hardest part about offering this workshop is finding interfaith couples who are engaged or recently married. The workshop is normally just $36 per couple, but mention this blog post and it’s free! Please share this blog post with anybody you know who lives in Chicagoland if you think they would get something out of having an experience like this. Whether a couple is getting married by a rabbi, a rabbi and clergy from another religion, only clergy from another religion, a Judge or by a friend; whether the couple is getting married for the first time or whether one or both has been previously married; whether the couple is LGBTQ or straight; everybody should know that this is open to them. At InterfaithFamily/Chicago our goal is to reach interfaith couples with programs in which they can strengthen relationships, find ways to connect with Judaism and with the Jewish community, and to understand more about the role Judaism can play in an interfaith relationship, in ways that will feel natural, comfortable, accessible and meaningful to both partners.

I look forward to learning with you in August or October!

Responding to a Recent Article About our Parenting Class

Chai Wolfman, a contributor to OyChicago, recently wrote about the online/in-person class we just offered, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.

She wrote that the great thing about having the material online is that she could come to it in five minutes here or there and get a nugget of content to ponder. Even though this class has ended, the material can still be accessed online. If any Chicagoland interfaith families with young children would like to learn more about this class, just email me: arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Chai also wrote about whether it is possible to get to know the other families in a primarily online class, which was one of our goals. I think families learned from each other's posts, but building friendships can only happen if they see each other for shared experiences. To that end, I will continue to share opportunities for our community to meet in person, like the JCC’s Got Shabbat or PJ Library programs.

The last point she made was particularly interesting: What does the term "interfaith" imply? I'm not sure how many kids use this term to describe their own family. Interfaith families run the gamut from families who want to incorporate both religions and traditions, to those in which one partner converts and they still feel that they are "interfaith" because they have extended family that isn't Jewish, to those in which one partner does not feel they have (or were raised in) any faith. When both partners are on the same page religiously they may feel that they are "just Jewish" or whatever other labels they give themselves. When families in similar religious situations can participate together in a program, it often leads to meaningful conversations about ideas that came up, what other people do, etc., and families often feel that having these affinity-type groups is meaningful. Congregations and communal organizations do wonder, though, what the best term is to use when wanting to reach all families across the interfaith spectrum. One congregation, temple-har-zion">West Suburban Har Zion, uses the term “multi-culti.” Whatever the term, I look forward to hearing from Chicagoland families who have a partner who is Jewish and one who didn't grow up Jewish or isn't Jewish: let us know what you are interested in, what challenges, if any, you have, and how we can better connect with you.

Chai mentioned wanting to find a welcoming congregation. Check out the amazing congregations from an independent minyan like Mishkan to all of the Humanist, Reform, Reconstruction, Conservative and other congregations in your area on our Chicagoland community page.

Lastly, as for requesting gluten-free challah as a pre-requisite for a congregational fit, this blogger is in complete agreement! Maybe fellow gluten-free families should have a challah-making group every Thursday afternoon. Or better yet, let's just meet at Rose's in Evanston! 

All interfaith families with young children in Chicago, who want meaningful Judaism and spirituality in your lives, there are so many options and resources for you. Help us get to know you so we can point you in the right direction.

Clergy Panel On Interfaith Marriage

I had the privilege to sit on a panel Monday night, May 20th, joining other clergy in expressing our views on interfaith marriage. This discussion was sponsored by the Winnetka Interfaith Council. The panelists were: Jena K. Khodadad, Bahai Faith; Rev. David Lower, Winnetka Presbyterian Church; Rabbi Samuel Gordon, founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette; Rev. Christopher Powell, Rector of Christ’s Church in Winnetka; and Herb White, from the First Church of Christ Science. It was moderated by John Lucas, MAPC, a counselor with the Samaritan Counseling Center.

Interestingly, the other clergy on the panel from Christian faiths and from Bahai had little problems with a Christian marrying a Jew. In fact, they emphasized Judaism as the root of Christianity and the parables of Jesus often mirroring narratives from the Hebrew Bible. They are not worried about the continuation of Christianity; they feel children in such families are doubly blessed. Interfaith marriage for Jews is so much more complicated, both theologically and because of the relatively small size of our community. However, when the progressive Jewish world thinks creatively, lovingly, openly, honestly and respectfully about how to make room for interfaith families exploring all aspects of religion, the Jewish community is indelibly strengthened and enriched.

The following questions generated some interesting discussion. I’m sharing my responses here. Let me know what you think.

In your experience, what challenges are there in trying to raise children of an interfaith marriage in both religions and what recommendations do you have to those who are trying to decide this issue?

It is theologically impossible to be both Jewish and Christian. If one accepts Jesus as divine and savior, this belief takes the person outside the realm of Judaism. However, I do feel it is possible to be enriched by two faiths. I do think children can benefit from being exposed to the faith, traditions, customs, narratives and cultures of both parents’ current religious identities or affiliations.

This belief is very controversial within the Jewish world. Many worry that children who grow up with two religions in the home will end up confused and angry. They may not come to affirm a strong Jewish identity. They may feel mixed-up and not know where they belong or fit in among mainstream religious organizations as adults. They may feel resentful of the need to “choose” a religion and feel that they will hurt one parent or another by “choosing a side.”

However, this need not be the case. A Pew study reported that 60% of adults practice a religion other than the one of birth. Identity is fluid today. People go in and out of faith communities. Children who have been passed literary and a love of two heritages by their parents may feel blessed and whole.

The challenges to raising children with an appreciation of two faiths is that they will be denied access to some Jewish organizations and other communal aspects of the religion, such as synagogue religious schools. These families will have to find welcoming synagogues, alternative havurot (Hebrew for fellowships, from the same root as the word for friends, this is a term used when families come together to learn and celebrate Shabbat and holidays together) and other avenues for being part of religious communal life including worship and learning.

Other challenges will arise in how to understand the theology of both religions and how to involve extended family who may have strong opinions about what children should and should not be exposed to religiously. These kinds of religious decision-making may add stress to a marriage or may enrich both parents as each one seeks to get in touch with what he or she really believes and wants to pass on to the children.

In doing premarital sessions with couples, what do you say to interfaith couples and what issues do you suggest that they discuss?

InterfaithFamily/Chicago offers a workshop called Love and Religion which helps couples learn how to talk about religion in their lives. In a group setting, couples begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion. If you are engaged or newly married and would like to join in the next session of Love and Religion, email me at arim@interfaithfamily.com.

In your experience, what are the keys to making an interfaith marriage work?

Interfaith marriages need support and resources which are specifically designed for couples that come to a relationship having grown up in two different religions. InterfaithFamily.com seeks to offer content to interfaith couples through narratives written by others in similar situations about how they handle certain things, and literacy about the meaning of different Jewish traditions and observances so that both partners understand aspects of Judaism. As well, the Network enables couples and families to “meet” each other online and discuss challenges they may share. Parents and couples blog about their experiences as well. We offer free, downloadable booklets and other articles which can be shared with extended family so that everyone can feel part of the religious lives’ of the couple. Both partners may feel that they have been challenged to be open, honest, flexible and giving in ways they may not have anticipated… but many say that their respect and love for each other is deepened through navigating an interfaith relationship.