Something Important About Israel You Can Do Right Now

The Israeli Knesset will vote in the next day or so on a bill that would fundamentally change the Law of Conversion and further concentrate power with the Chief Rabbinate.

As explained in Ha’aretz,

Under current practice, Israel recognizes only conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, but people converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside the country are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship like other Jews. The proposed legislation would give Israel’s chief rabbinate the legal power to decide whether any conversion is legitimate. The group most likely to suffer would be immigrants who converted to Judaism abroad and could now be denied Israeli citizenship.

Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet magazine, had a particularly good op-ed in the New York Times:

If this bill passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.

This legislation is important to Interfaith couples even if they aren’t presently contemplating conversion. Israel’s chief rabbinate is totally hostile to any acknowledgment whatsoever of interfaith relationships or any welcoming whatsoever of interfaith families. Extending the chief rabbinate’s power is not in the interest of any interfaith couple that has any interest in Israel. I urge you to go to the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center website and send an email to Prime Minister Netanyahu asking him to intervene and urge withdrawal of the proposed legislation.

The proposed legislation has engendered a storm of protest from the Jewish community outside of Israel, including the Reform and rabbi-julie-schonfeld/israel-conversion-bill-an_b_649513.html:2k7fts1c">Conservative movements, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Boston federation, and others.

To learn more, check the coverage in JTA, including the Fundermentalist blog, the Associated Press, and the New York Jewish Week.

Yes That

What should we do about divorce in interfaith families? Two people who are always smart about interfaith family issues, Laurel Snyder, the editor of the book Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes and Julie Wiener, a Jewish journalist writing on interfaith marriage for the New York Jewish Week, have written recently about outreach strategies and the Reyes divorce case. They said some things that have me saying a big Amen.

In After the Bus Wreck, Snyder wrote:

Because the single greatest problem I see in Jewish intermarriage is not a Christmas tree, it’s this—the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed. In all the most troubled cases I’ve encountered, this is the unifying narrative. Mom turns orthodox or Dad is born again. Dad moves to Israel or Mom marries a minister. Usually, divorce stands in for the lethal bus accident.

There is a polarizing force in divorce that attaches itself to religion. Religion helps to soothe the jangled soul of the newly single parent, creates automatic community and home. So divorce drives us into the bosom of faith.  But for a kid who has grown up with one set of rules and signifiers, the sudden shift, the change in terms, can be brutal. At a time when things are already baffling enough.

People who worry that interfaith marriage might lead to assimilation sometimes express the wish that intermarried partners would divorce. Aside from wishing misery on other people, which has to be some kind of sin somewhere, there’s this problem: adding a further layer of destabilization to a kid’s life by throwing their religious life up in the air.

And this case brings up the other “solution” to interfaith marriage–pressuring the non-Jewish spouse to convert. As Julie Wiener put it:

While I think conversion to Judaism can be a wonderful thing, too often the Jewish community pushes it in a way that seems like a dishonest, cosmetic solution to intermarriage — about making things look good, about covering up the non-Jewish partner’s embarrassing heritage and making the Jewish family feel like good Jews, rather than about encouraging real soul searching. I wonder how many of these cosmetic conversions actually last beyond the marriage that spurred them.

Julie then told the story of a woman she met who confided to her that though she’d converted during her marriage, she felt unmoored and like “nothing” after divorce.

A person can’t predict how he or she will feel in the wake of divorce. Most people don’t get married thinking, “this love is too good to last.” We can’t really blame people for changing their beliefs even in a marriage. What the Jewish community can do to support interfaith families is to get over discomfort about the role of non-Jews in the community.  It would be better for people in the Jewish community to live with the discomfort of figuring out how to include non-Jewish spouses and family members in Jewish life than to pressure people for cosmetic conversions. The stakes are high–let’s go for the big win and not the bus wreck.

Meaningful Spiritual Practices and New Translation of Psalms

I have often felt uncomfortable with the word spiritual. It’s usually used in a way that makes me feel inferior, because I don’t know if my experiences measure up. I mean, I get a lot out of traditional Jewish practice, like prayer and making blessings and doing mitzvot and stuff like that, but I can’t say that what I’m getting is spiritual. It’s a little zap or zing of feeling, something emotional, but maybe that’s not spiritual? I don’t know. I also get a little thrill reading poetry or listening to religious music in other traditions, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Mavis Staples–but is that a spiritual thrill?

Nevertheless, I wrote a Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, after about three months of research and introspection–and kvetching. (The kvetching was surprisingly fruitful, if utterly unspiritual, because people responded with their insights in the face of my whining.) I thought a lot about how interfaith families have unique opportunities for hiddur mitzvah, making the performance of commandments extra beautiful and excellent.

After I wrote my piece, I found this blog post on jewsbychoice.org, Three Meaningful Spiritual Practices for Rural Isolated Jews. I love this! The practices that I chose for my guide were very community-based ones, and I am so happy to see something about how to find something meaningful on your own.

Another nifty thing I came across after I wrote my guide was Pam Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation. I’m friendly with Pam and really excited about this new edition, which becomes available today. You can read and hear an interview with Pam on the pbs.org website. Psalms are a really important part of Jewish (and many Christian!) worship services, so a new translation that gives a chance to rethink them is very exciting. (Plus I’m so stoked to realize I watched Pam working on this at the Diesel Cafe! That’s just nifty, you know?)

I’d love to hear from you about your meaningful spiritual practices.

Just say no

I’ve been working for weeks on a blog post to put all the conversion hysteria in the Jewish world into some kind of context. Yesterday I spent an hour trying to work the latest news from Israel into the whole complicated, world-wide, cross-denominational mess. I realized it’s taking too long and I just need to tell you this:

There’s a bill before the Knesset in Israel to change the Law of Return to bar converts from being integrated into Israeli society as Jews and we have to act now.

At the moment, any convert, no matter who has converted him or her, can make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) under the Law of Return–even people whom the Chief Rabbinate would deny the right to marry a Jew. Israeli law also dodges the problem of excluding people who are Jewish by patrilineal descent through a 1970 amendment that allows relatives of Jews to come on the same basis as Jews.

Now the right-wing secular party Yisrael Beiteinu has put forward a new bill to exclude converts to Judaism from the Law of Return–catering to the Chief Rabbinate, whose officials have declared hundreds of Orthodox conversions performed in the State of Israel invalid. (We’re not even talking about Reform or Conservative conversions done in the US or elsewhere.)

If you think this is pushing Israel toward theocracy, you are dead wrong. At least, if it is a theocracy, it’s not a Jewish one, because declaring converts to have a different status is not based on Judaism. Jewish religion says that a Jew is a Jew and there’s no distinction between converts and people who are born Jewish. This is a scary piece of legislation designed to cut off the rest of the Jewish people from the State of Israel. On JewsByChoice.Org (a fantastic web resource that seems to be back in business!) I found this plea from the Conservative movement to act immediately on the Knesset bill. The Reform movement, through its Zionist organization Arza, is also urging action. 

This is not the solution to the problems of interfaith families in Israel, as Yisrael Beiteinu seems to believe. Jewishness is not a racial category and we can’t resolve our communal differences over how to do conversion by taking from converts one of the major tokens of belonging to the Jewish people. The bizarre and anti-halachic campaign of the Chief Rabbinate to undermine conversions in Israel has had widespread impact here in the Diaspora. It’s time to tell them no.

Rebecca Reyes Tells Her Side of the Story

At InterfaithFamily.com we have posted previously 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.

Catholic Father, Jewish Daughter, Part Two

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.

A Catholic Parent Using His Jewish Daughter As A Pawn In A Contentious Divorce.

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!

Lighten Up Dude

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.

Awesome!

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.

He’s not the first Jew with a mezuzah on his door who had an adult bar mitzvah and then married a non-Jew. Send him our way–we’ve got a listing of synagogues that are welcoming to interfaith families–and cartoon clowns.

JFS Case Settled and Jewish Community Unsettled

We’ve posted before on the British Jewish school court case, first when the Court of Appeals ruled that JFS, the largest Jewish high school in Europe, couldn’t exclude a boy whose mother was a non-Orthodox convert, and then when the British Supreme court was ruling on the case. Now the British Supreme Court has returned a verdict–the school admissions policy was discriminatory.

As The Guardian reported,

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 Times reported 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.”

Lightman isn’t inventing a straw person for the sake of argument; last year The Guardian ran an article about atheist sending their children to faith schools because these schools were academically better than the local secular ones.

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.

Movie Review: Leap of Faith

We ran a review today of A Serious Man, and I wanted to also be sure to give you a chance to see the review I wrote for the Boston Jewish Film Festival booklet of one of the movies they are screening, Leap of Faith. (We also had a feature story about another film in the festival, Killing Kastner. The Boston Jewish Film Festival is still going on.

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.