Couples are marrying with or without us. Let’s help.

  

couple

The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. I’ve seen articles that talk about “caving on intermarriage” and “coming to terms with it” and “addressing the problem.” This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.

It’s not about caving on interfaith marriage.
It’s not about settling or coming to terms with it.
It’s not an issue.
It’s not a problem.

By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What we’re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.

We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. It’s not a disease. It’s not a shameful act. It’s a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. It’s about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.

When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, “Thanks for doing the work that I’m not allowed to do.”

So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues don’t deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that “We accept you and your partner” and also, “I cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.” These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.

One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this couple—a Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnostic—they said, “We never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now we’re excited to have a rabbi.” I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing “No, you’re not welcome here” either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.

Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: “My fiancé is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didn’t want a rabbi because he was worried he’d feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.”

I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.

I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.

Families are complicated and most people’s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.

Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesn’t matter.  People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she won’t marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.

Let’s help.

Photo credit: Tom The Photographer

Three Voices from the Conservative Movement

  

In March Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, explaining “Why I Will Not Simply Accept Intermarriage,” wrote for the Forward that “Celebrating interfaith weddings… [would] diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.” I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forward’s website):

We respect Rabbi Kalmonofsky’s perspective and emphasis on the centrality of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. But most Jews today don’t approach Judaism that way. They are looking for meaning through Jewish practices and a community of like-minded, Jewishly-engaged others. We don’t agree with Rabbi Kalmonofsky’s apparent dismissal of that as just seeking “happiness” or “sampling” Judaism.

 

Rabbi Kalmonofsky says that “No matter how nicely you say it, declining to perform someone’s wedding implies a cruel rejection.” That is certainly what we hear from the many interfaith couples with whom we connect over our officiation referral service – and it fully applies to his suggestion that rabbis says “for now, have a civil wedding, and we’ll wish you mazel tov.”

 

Rabbi Kalmonofsky says that a Jewish wedding ceremony cannot be a nonconverting gentile spouse’s “own” ceremony or “summon her to join our shared past, shared future and shared mission.” This is very off base; in our experience, when interfaith couples seek a rabbi to officiate at their wedding, they are looking for a ceremony that they both can own. The ceremony may not “summon” the partner who is not Jewish to formally “join” as a Jew, but it can certainly invite ongoing engagement and participation – which may or may not ultimately lead to conversion.

 

In the end, circling the wagons as Rabbi Kalmonofsky suggests may entrench his covenantal emphasis, but it will do so to an increasingly diminished group. As one Conservative rabbi we know says, this is “doubling down on a failed policy of rejectionism” that has “driven many away from Jewish life.”

Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Ha’aretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaism’s guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that “Jewish leaders’ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.” Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says “What if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?” Among his many refreshing comments are, “Judaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationship” and “people of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious ways” and “two people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.” Rabbi Knopf concludes,

If Jewish leaders shifted to teach young people these and other pieces of relationship wisdom, rather than harping on the importance of in-marriage, we could help people truly flourish and, as a result, bring them closer to Judaism, regardless of who they marry.

We applaud Rabbi Knopf’s novel approach and the welcoming attitude he expresses. But what happens when interfaith couples are brought closer to Judaism, specifically to Conservative synagogues? In March, Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, wrote a blot post for The Times of Israel describing a New Conservative/Masorti ceremony for interfaith couples, which is described in greater length on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly (the association of Conservative rabbis).

Rabbi Lerner was a co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, “a ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friends… within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).” The core of the Hanukkat Habayit ceremony is putting up a mezuzah; the ceremony is described at length in the blog post and on the RA website and it does appear to offer a lovely and meaningful ritual and celebrate the Jewish choices the couple has made. It also comes with a three- to six-month learning period with the rabbi before the ceremony and continuing conversations with the rabbi afterwards, all aimed as supporting the couple’s Jewish growth.

We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but it’s important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is “for interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;” “if the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;” “There should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the couple’s home, such as a Christmas tree.” Many interfaith couples who might want to make Jewish choices in a Conservative context may note be quite as far along in terms of their decision making as is required for the ceremony. And there is continuing tension with those coming from the perspective of tradition – as Rabbi Lerner says, “some” in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, “as we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.

This will surely be a continuing discussion worth following.

You’re One of Us

  

Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Joy Levitt have written an extremely important op-ed for JTA: “If You Marry a Jew, You’re One of Us.” For the past 14 years, we at InterfaithFamily have been advocating for Jews to welcome, embrace and fully include interfaith couples and families into Jewish life and community. We have always maintained that the attitudes Jews have toward intermarriage need to change from negative or ambivalent, to seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.

It is wonderfully affirming to now hear Jewish leaders like Levitt, the brilliantly successful director of the JCC in Manhattan, and Cohen – until recently one of the most vociferous critics of intermarriage – espouse the same views.

The crux of their essay (I am quoting what I feel are the most important points):

We know that where both parents identify as Jews, nearly all their children identify as Jews as well. And when only one parent sees himself/herself as Jewish, only a minority of their children grow up as Jews. Aside from raising the inmarriage rate, how can we create more households where both partners see themselves as part of the Jewish people?

One answer is for all of us to change the way we think of, and treat, those who love and marry our children, family members and friends. Basically we should agree and fully internalize the idea: If you marry a Jew, you’re fully part of our community until proven otherwise.

Born Jews would undergo a subtle but critical shift in the way they relate to family members and friends not born Jewish. It would mean fully including them in holiday practices, life-cycle ceremonies, and Jewishly centered social action and political activities.

[F]or those who choose to be part of our community without formal conversion — who come to the Passover seder and drive their children to Hebrew school, who sit shiva with us, or who bring their sons into the community at a brit milah, who shep naches at their daughters’ bat mitzvah and who go to Israel on vacation — we say welcome. It’s a pleasure to know you. Come learn. You’re one of us if you want to be.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

‘Til Faith Do Us Part

  

Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.

I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:

On the one hand, they must welcome them if they wish to keep up a connection with the believing spouse and his or her children. But they must also provide a strong sense of community and a gracious but confident expression of their own religious worldview. “Regularly engaging nonmember spouses in conversations about the faith is important,” she writes, noting that such engagement, if done with a soft touch, may bring the spouse into the fold. Finally, religious communities must focus more on reaching young adults, giving them a venue where they can engage their religious faith in a new way and meet a “soul mate” who draws them closer to the fold rather than leading them away from it.

I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.

The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:

My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place — and available to be scrutinized?

Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.

I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:

If the idea was to separate the two young people, it didn’t work. Shortly after Ron got to California, he sent Ann a plane ticket. When she arrived, they got married and have remained married to this day. She got a job at the university, took a class in Judaism and, much to my brother’s surprise, converted, although it took her a while to find a rabbi willing to give her the required course of instruction. Just the other day she remarked, “It was a hard club to get into.”

The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:

She just wants prospective interfaith couples to know that it is work, that love doesn’t conquer all, that “a rocky road may lie ahead of them” and that they “need to think in practical terms about their faith differences — how it will affect the way they spend their time, their money, and the way they want to raise their kids.” Her message is that if you don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be a bed of roses, you’ll have a better chance of its not being a bed of thorns.

That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.

Intermarried Rabbis and Intermarriage Attitudes

  

We’re back from Passover and there was a flurry of commentary about intermarriage in the Jewish media. Last week Benjamin Maron blogged about Rabbinical Students and Intermarriage, picking up on Rebecca Goodman’s February post on Rabbis and Intermarriage. This is all started when Daniel Kirzane, a rabbinic student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the child of intermarried parents, wrote in a debate in Reform Judaism magazine that that seminary should admit students with non-Jewish partners — which it currently does not allow. (This debate has been going on at least since I blogged about it in 2009.)

Benjamin pointed out that a Reform rabbi, Mark Miller, wrote a rather scathing article in the Times of Israel, lamenting Reform Judaism’s supposed “embrace of assimilation.” I want to bring to your attention Aliza Worthington’s very powerful response, also in the Times of Israel, Rigidity is the real threat to Jewish continuity. Worthington tells her personal story of Jewish engagement despite — or perhaps because of — her own intermarriage, the welcome she and her husband received, how she shares Judaism now with her children — and then describes Miller’s response to Kirzane as follows:

You are taking people who have chosen Judaism — chosen it! — and shoving them away. Here is someone [Kirzane] who was born of an intermarriage of faiths, and he not only chose Judaism to follow, to study, but to live and to teach! And you belittle his parents’ love because it somehow makes his Judaism less authentic to you? You deny him his learning and his future livelihood should he fall in love with someone who is not Jewish? You’re worried that a rabbi who marries a gentile is threatening and disgraceful to the Jewish faith? Even though he cherishes Judaism?

I respect your education and career. I admire your devotion to our shared faith. I worry, though, that you have grossly misidentified the real threats to Judaism: Sanctimony, Superiority, and Judgmentalism.

Sadly but not surprisingly, Worthington’s essay attracted vituperative comments which spurred Adin Feder, a high school student at Boston’s Gann Academy — a pluralistic Jewish day school — to write in The Threat of Warrantless Hatred:

…the problem is the absolutism and rigidity of those who write off and bash Jews who intermarry or subscribe to a different religious philosophy. Attacking and disowning a fellow Jew who decided to marry a Catholic isn’t just wrong. It’s also impractical.

In a recent survey I took of my grade at my pluralistic Jewish high school, I found that over half of the grade, 51%, is “open to marrying someone who is not Jewish”. A further 19% said that they “don’t know” if they would be open to it. Only 30% of the grade said that they are not “open to marrying someone who is not Jewish”. Keep in mind that these results are from students at a Jewish school!

Is the peanut gallery that claims to have been invested with the power to define “real Judaism” and therefore insult all other Jews who don’t fit that definition, prepared to repudiate a huge portion of the next generation of American Jews? Perhaps their energy would be better spent appealing to rather than insulting Jews, in order to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.

Sadly, again, Feder’s article attracted more nasty comments — but Worthington had what I hope is the last word: “Thank God for kids like you who are thinking, educated, engaged, open-minded, compassionate, and articulate. You are the future of a strong, healthy Judaism. Thank you.”

The nasty comments are unfortunate but they aren’t really the point. There will always be people at the extreme who see their way as the only way and intermarriage as intolerable — just as there will always be people who are extremely passionate about the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families. But I wonder what this exchange of commentary demonstrates about the attitudes towards intermarriage of the “great middle.”

With the same-sex marriage cases recently before the Supreme Court, there has been much in the secular press, less about the extremely pro and extremely con voices in that debate, but much more about the revolution in attitudes of the “great middle” in favor of marriage equality. Is Feder’s survey — and remember, it’s from a Jewish high school — representative, indicative of a great shift in attitudes among younger Jews which will push negative views like those of Rabbi Miller to an ineffectual extreme? I wonder.