When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?
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At InterfaithFamily.com we have postedpreviously about Rebecca and Joseph Reyes’ divorce and custody battle in Chicago, which could have implications for other interfaith couples divorcing. Joseph Reyes had agreed to raise his daughter Ela as a Jew and had indeed converted to Judaism himself. When the marriage broke up, Joseph Reyes brought the child to church and had her baptized Catholic. He took photos of the baptism and sent them to his ex-wife. Rebecca Reyes sought a temporary restraining order to prevent Reyes from taking the child to church again–which he proceeded to do, in apparent violation of the order, and this time, brought a television crew with him.
Chicago television spoke with Joseph Reyes and presented his views on their websites, which we found disturbing.
On ABC’s 20/20 show on February 26, reporter Chris Cuomo interviewed the estranged parents. Rebecca Reyes, who had not spoken to the press about this personal matter, apparently decided to go public. Rebecca Reyes told Cuomo on the show, “The constant undermining of who [Ela] is, who she was born as, and who we agreed she would be in our home, is really harmful. There will be confusion; there will be an abrogation of her identity.” She expressed concerns over the threatening emails and Facebook messages she’s had from people she’s never met, and especially over visits to her child’s Jewish preschool from strangers.
It’s tempting just to side with the mother in this case, especially since she’s Jewish and her thinking is similar to everything we’ve read about consistency in child-rearing after divorce. We have a lot of trouble, from the selections quoted in the press, believing Joseph Reyes’ self-presentation, especially his insistence that he was coerced into conversion. You can watch the story on the ABC website to see what I mean. But even though we are freer, as a non-profit organization, to take a partisan position on this private matter than journalistic organizations ought to feel themselves to be, we know we don’t know everything about this case, and that any judgment we offer will be based on this limited information.
One thing, however, seems obvious. Parenting in an interfaith marriage means being able to negotiate–even when the marriage is breaking up. Sticking with agreements about religion is just as important as sticking with other parenting agreements, like the ones about school and who will supervise a small child. What obviously seems to the media like a sexy case about freedom of religion or father’s rights looks very different when you think about what this may be like for the little girl involved.
The Joseph Reyes case that we blogged about a month ago is in the news again – there is a court hearing today on whether he should be punished for violating a court order that he not expose his daughter to any religion other than Judaism.
I’m concerned about the news slant on this story – on the ABC website part of the headline is “Afghanistan War Vet Faces Jail Time For Taking His Daughter To Church.” If you don’t know more, it makes the Jewish mother look bad, objecting to her child being exposed to the father’s religion.
The child’s best interests are paramount in a divorce case. Joseph Reyes converted to Judaism and obviously he and his wife must have agreed to raise their child as a Jew. Courts should require parents to live up to their agreements in a divorce. I would feel the same way if the mother were Catholic, the father converted to Catholicism, then divorced and wanted to expose the child to Judaism.
Plenty of intermarried parents have written for us that they are raising their children Jewish but on occasion take them to a church service. If the Reyes’ child were older, I don’t think there would be any problem with doing that, and don’t think the mother would have a good reason to object if her ex-husband requested her agreement. But baptizing a young child seems to clearly indicate an intention to raise the child as a Catholic, contravening the parents’ earlier agreement.
I would never say that it is a mistake to convert just prior to a marriage or in order to get married, because in many cases when that happens the conversion is sincere. But apparently, Joseph Reyes’ conversion was not – he is quoted as saying he did so because his in-laws wouldn’t accept him otherwise. If that was the case, it certainly was not a good way for the marriage to get started.
There are other parts of this story that strongly suggest that Reyes’ motivation is not one of sincere religious conviction, but instead just part of a bitter divorce struggle. Reyes, a law student, says that Catholicism “falls under the umbrella of Judaism”? That he was just taking his daughter to hear the teachings of the greatest Jewish rabbi ever? Please. He called a reporter to film him going to church in violation of the court order?
Again, the child’s best interests should be paramount to both parents. Exposing children to conflict like this between two trusted parents is the worst possible thing. And to repeat, I’m not disapproving of Reyes’ conduct because he is trying to raise a child Catholic who would otherwise be Jewish – if he were trying to raise a child Jewish who would otherwise be Catholic, I’d feel the same way.
I just came across an article from Chicago CBS 2′s website that speaks volumes for the importance of an interfaith family being in agreement about the religious upbringing of their family.
In Chicago, Joseph Reyes may be in violation or a court order for taking his 3 year old daughter to church. Joseph Reyes had his child baptized and sent a photograph to his soon-to-be-ex wife, Rebecca. She asked the court to bar her husband from taking their daughter to church and exposing her to any religion other than Judaism. The court agreed that such exposure would be detrimental to the young child. Then the father took his child to church again, arranging for a television reporter to write on the story.
Joseph Reyes converted to Judaism after his daughter’s birth. Even though Jewish law forbids coercion in conversion, Mr. Reyes told the local reporter that he had been pressured to convert. He said he wants to expose his daughter to Catholicism and let her choose her own religion, and further, he can’t see much difference between Judaism and Catholicism:
I am taking her to hear the teachings of perhaps the most prominent Jewish Rabbi (Jesus) in the history of this great planet of ours. I can’t think of anything more Jewish than that.”
What jumped out at us at InterfaithFamily.com was the slanted way the reporter wrote the story, siding with the husband who had reversed agreements with his wife in the process of the divorce. There’s no recognition in the stories on the CBS 2 website of a Jewish viewpoint or even the idea that religion might be used in a divorce as a weapon. He didn’t quote any experts on interfaith families, nearly all of whom take the position that raising children in one faith is less confusing. Certainly, adult children of interfaith families have told us they found it confusing to be raised “both”.
People do change after divorce, but we always hope that parents will stay with the parenting decisions they made for their children before the divorce. We had one of our interfaith marriage experts record his advice on how to weather divorce–emphasizing how children benefit from consistency. We know that the Reyes’ story is not uncommon, and that many interfaith couples who divorce wind up in conflict over religion. Perhaps we’re all lucky that the local news media don’t choose to involve themselves in every case!
I have been stewing over how to blog about the Eternal Jewish Family conversion scandal which I have been following on Twitter and on Failed Messiah since it broke. (If you follow the link, you can read the excellent take at Tablet Magazine on the story.) I just didn’t know how to deal with yet another horrible embarrassment for the Jewish people. But I’m just teasing you–I still don’t know what I can say about this scandal that doesn’t involve a lot of ranting, raving and anthropological jargon.
Nope, today I’m going to write about Krusty the Clown. Remember Krusty, the character on The Simpsons patterned after Bozo the Clown–but Jewish. My former office-mate at the University of Massachusetts used to quote the line, “Krusty the Clown is Jewish?” at me to crack me up. (It didn’t really work, but nice try, Jeff.) Now, according to the Forward, In the next episode of The Simpsons, Krusty is in an interfaith relationship and his rabbi dad is going to officiate at the wedding.
I was sitting here fuming about a story in the Orthodox Jewish Press, Time to Bring Back the Communal Cold Shoulder. The link is there for completeness; I don’t recommend reading the article since it might raise your blood pressure. The rabbi who wrote this story looks back with nostalgia on his upbringing in Brooklyn, where people who violated Jewish law were ostracized. Why aren’t we ostracizing some of “those whose immoral and illegal behavior has contributed to chillul Hashem and to the diminution of respect others have for the Orthodox community and for the Torah itself.” The way they used to ostracize people back in Bensonhurst–and who is the example from his? An interfaith couple he remembers people shunned. (One in which the wife was Jewish, yet, so that the children would be considered Jewish under Orthodox legal interpretation.)
This is why I still have a job. There are still at least some Jewish leaders willing to compare extreme crooks, people who sell human kidneys, sexual abusers and folks who sell treif meat as glatt kosher–to intermarriage. Because they do not have good sense. If that couple had children, are those children Jewish today? Oh, why not do you think?
I have so many angry things to say about people who think interfaith marriage is more dangerous to the Jewish people than having rabbis who are crooks, creeps and criminals, so many hot words on the moral bankruptcy of this kind of position and why it leads to the kind of scandal we’re seeing at Eternal Jewish Family.
And then you know–Krusty the Clown is Jewish? Heh.
Phillips said the judges did not consider the Chief Rabbi to be racist. The judgment “should not be read as criticising the admissions policy of JFS on moral grounds, or suggesting it was ‘racist’ in the pejorative sense”, he added.
Is there a non-pejorative sense of racist? I can’t think of one.
In past blog posts I’ve tried to provide some context for this case. First there is the context of the British educational system, which provides government funds to “faith schools,” which are one third of the state schools in England. That’s very different from here in the US, where religious schools are private, and only provide public services in a limited way under contract. Another piece of the context is the religious complexion of Britain’s Jewish community, which seems to consist mainly of non-observant Jews affiliated with the modern Orthodox United Synagogue, under the aegis of the Chief Rabbi. There is also a growing minority of haredi or far-right Orthodox Jews, who have a strong influence on the rabbinical court of the Chief Rabbi, and there is another minority of liberal Jews whose beliefs and practices line up (not very precisely) with Reform and Conservative Judaism here.
Another piece of the puzzle is JFS–an excellent school that is oversubscribed. Making admissions contingent on the most stringent definitions of who is a Jew (excluding some children whose mothers had undergone Orthodox conversion as well as the child in the present case) gave the school a way to weed through the candidates. This has left an unpleasant taste in some community members’ mouths, as the New York Timesreported today:
David Lightman, an alumnus of JFS who keeps kosher, whose wife is a convert to Judaism and whose daughter was also denied entry to the school on the grounds that it did not recognize the conversion, said that its old admissions policy was narrow-minded and divisive.
His wife is the head of the school’s English department, he said; his daughter teaches Hebrew classes. Why, he asked, should they be considered less Jewish than a non-believing atheist, say, whose mother happens to be Jewish?
“God can work it out,” Mr. Lightman said. “He’s a big boy; he’s been around for a long time. He can decide who’s Jewish and who isn’t.”
I know that some Jewish educators in the US are scratching their heads and wishing they had these problems–state funded, excellent schools so good that people are fighting to get their children into them. Or maybe not? Because who really wants the state involved in the internal decisions of their community, and requiring students to prove they are “religious” when they aren’t in school. It will be interesting to see how the school handles their new problem of determining who is a Jew–who is behaving in a Jewish way–and whether it’s easier or harder than their old problem.
In general I think of Jewish film festivals as a great way for people in interfaith families to engage with Jewish culture. I’m not so sure whether these three movies are necessarily the ones I would recommend to interfaith families specifically, especially since the one they asked me to review was about conversion. Anyway, here’s my mini-review:
As the editor of InterfaithFamily.com, I read a lot of memoirs from Jews by choice. They often make me cry. I understand why people choose Judaism on an intellectual level – our religion has a lot to offer – but it touches me on a visceral level that they choose to become part of our people. Watching Leap of Faith reminded me again of what is so intense about the stories of Jews by choice. I can’t speak for everyone who was raised Jewish, but Jewishness is so close to my identity that every story about someone choosing Judaism feels like someone is choosing to join my family–even if the Judaism in their community doesn’t look exactly like the Judaism in mine.
The documentary follows several people who want to become Jews and are seeking conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Most of them come from devout Christian backgrounds and have come to believe that Judaism is a stronger expression of their beliefs, not only about God and monotheism, but about family, community and the good life. They have disrupted their previous lives to move into the heart of an observant Jewish community, because it’s nearly impossible to live a full Jewish life alone. The Orthodox conversion process requires living in the community for at least a year before one can come in front of the rabbinical court.
Any time someone wants to join a Jewish community, they must conform to that community’s norms. Jewish communities, whether they are Orthodox or more liberal, value close families. Not all Jewish families fit that cultural expectation, but we still build our culture and religion around it.
For the people in this documentary, families are a paradox. Without having the support of at least their nuclear families, they won’t succeed in making the transformation they seek. But when devout Christian families want what’s best for their family members, they want them to believe in Jesus, because only in that belief can they find salvation. How does one perform the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents while leaving their religion?
At the end of the film, one of the rabbinical authorities on conversion is asked whether he would want one of his children to marry a convert. The rabbi cannot answer the question. He’s stuck. He knows what he should say, but he can’t say it. It’s a very important moment in the film – will these people who have worked so hard to be Jewish ever really belong? Perhaps this rabbi’s paralysis is an extreme case; most Jews aren’t in communities that hold such contradictory views on Jews by choice. Still, it says something about our fear of difference as a community that we still find converts exotic, that we can’t forget they converted – perhaps because we can’t believe that they picked us.
There’s a lot of backstory to this case, some of it having to do with the structure of British society and the place of Anglo-Jewry within it. There are 97 Jewish schools in the UK out of 7,000 publicly financed religious schools. All of the Jewish schools are under the auspices of the United Synagogue and therefore nominally Orthodox–but not all of them restrict their admissions to Jewish students. At least one, the King David School in Birmingham, a city with a shrinking Jewish population, is 50% Muslim. Many Christian schools of various denominations require religious practice tests–but they don’t have the challenge of not being able to write on their Sabbath when students go to worship, as Jewish students do.
Another piece of the backstory is the general acceleration of moral panic over self-definition that seems to have afflicted the entire Jewish people in the last year and a half, with the Israeli high rabbinical court declaring conversions invalid after the fact on what seem from my perspective to be entirely spurious grounds. In Britain, according to Miriam Shaviv in The Forward, the Chief Rabbi had already declared in 2005 that two women who’d converted in Israel (and therefore with an an Orthodox rabbinical court) weren’t Jewish enough for the United Synagogue, because they weren’t Jewish enough to pass muster with Haredi (trembling, or far-right Orthodox) Jewish authorities on the rabbinical court. Those families didn’t fight back–the family of the child in the present case, who was rejected in 2007, did. (Shaviv points out that the judge who ruled in the family’s favor on the appeals court is Jewish.)
I need to write at length about this moral panic over conversion and self-definition, because it’s incredibly painful for a lot of people in our lives. It’s probably enough for now to say that even with all the backstory, I can’t understand the rationale for keeping motivated kids out of a great Jewish school, or taking the risk of getting the government involved in that school’s admissions policy.
One of our writers, Franklin Velazquez, started a new group on InterfaithFamily.com’s network for Latino Jews. I thought this was a good excuse to point you to some articles and resources we have on the site for Latino Jews, and maybe to attract members to the group and writers for the site.
Velazquez wrote The Lonely Journey of Puerto Rican Jew for us, about being a Jew by Choice in an interfaith relationship, and we still get a lot of comments to that story from people who are looking to connect.
The Latino Jewish experience is varied. It includes people who learn their families were crypto-Jews and want to return to Judaism, people who choose Judaism out of conviction without any idea that they had Jewish heritage, children of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews who immigrated to Latin America and children of interfaith marriages in which one partner was Latino. I hope InterfaithFamily.com can be a resource to all of these groups as part of our overall mission of creating a more welcoming Jewish community.
I recently read Rebecca Blady’s blog post on the website of New Voices, a Jewish student magazine. Blady’s post discusses the National Council of Young Israel’s (NCYI) 2007 policy that restricts member synagogues from having converts to Judaism or women as congregational presidents. Blady andothers have also discussed several other policies which demonstrate how NCYI likely has moved to the right of Modern Orthodoxy.
According to Quinn’s article in the Yeshivah University Commentator two years ago, the NYCI gave only a vague reason for its 2007 restriction on synagogue presidents. They cited a ruling by RabbiMoshe Feinstein, a major 20th century Orthodox rabbi, that converts or women should not be in a position of coercive authority over other Jews. It’s not clear that presidency of a local synagogue in the United States is a position of coercive power, and I fear that this interpretation violates a major Torah principle of accepting the convert. In fact I had been taught it was downright rude to call attention to a convert’s background.
I began to wonder why the NCYI would choose to implement this policy in the 21st century. Perhaps,they were influenced by the United States constitution, which prohibits an immigrant from being president? Or maybe the NCYI feels that being the president of a synagogue gives one real coercive power over their fellow synagogue members. (I hope not!) I fear that for most people, the take-away is a message that converts may be somehow less Jewish, less committed to the performance of mitzvot. InterfaithFamily.com readers can attest to the opposite. Those who choose Judaism may be more cognizant to the details of a Jewish lifestyle.
As someone who has enjoyed praying at Young Israel synagogues in the past, I hope they will reconsider some of their policies. Meanwhile, I can think of a lot more welcoming Orthodox institutions both more traditional and more liberal than the NCYI that I will support instead.
Last week, a British Court of Appeals ruled that an individual’s Jewish beliefs, not birth or conversion, determines Jewishness, and that to deny a child admission to a Jewish school due to the circumstances of his birth is racism. This was in response to a British court case in which the parent of a child was denied admission to JFS (formerly known as the Jews Free School), a publicly-funded Jewish school, because his mother’s conversion to Judaism was through an independent progressive synagogue that the Orthodox United Synagogue didn’t recognize. This is the second time that the case has been heard. JFS has said that it will appeal the case to the House of Lords, which functions like the US Supreme Court in being Britain’s court of last appeal.
If the appeals court decision stands, the 97 Jewish schools in Britain, all of which are Orthodox, will have to create new criteria to determine who is eligible for admission into Jewish day schools. A spokesperson from the British Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the United Jewish Communities in the US) told Haaretz that Jewish schools could be compelled to use “faith tests” similar to those done by publically-funded church schools in Britain. These faith tests could include home visits and attendance checks at the local synagogue. I can envision it now, desecrate the Sabbath, get kicked out of school!