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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Alongside theÂ negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.
Naomi Schaefer Riley has anÂ interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the Bâ€™nai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says
If thereâ€™s one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, itâ€™s the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isnâ€™t Jewish will turn around a few years later and push them to send their children to the synagogue preschool. In my interviews [for her book on interfaith couples], this practice is commonly labeled â€śhypocriticalâ€ť by those affected by it.
Riley makes the interesting observation that the Catholic church used to require the non-Catholic spouse to promise to raise children Catholic, but decided it couldnâ€™t in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders â€śhave no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.â€ť Despite that, Riley does think the Bâ€™nai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.
In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples â€“ after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding â€“ is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, anÂ excellent article in theÂ Boston GlobeÂ about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing interfaith marriages not as a loss â€“ â€śItâ€™s not a minus one, itâ€™s a plus one.â€ť
Rubel says Honeymoon Israelâ€™s goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but â€śto empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.â€ť Sixty percent of the couples who take the trip are interfaith, including the author of the article, who writes that a few months after the trip, her group â€śhad settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.â€ť This is very important. It shows whatâ€™s possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.
After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children â€“ and thereâ€™sÂ positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28Â percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith familiesÂ and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish â€“ for example, 89 percent of interfaithÂ families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67Â percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaithÂ families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is â€śexcitingâ€ť to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.
One of the reportâ€™s conclusions is that â€śthere is room to grow the program among â€¦ intermarried familiesâ€ť and that PJ needs to expand efforts to reach more of the less-connected, less-affiliated families. I very much hope that PJ does that. Itâ€™s interesting that PJâ€™s influence is greater within the home; other studies have found that interfaith families are more comfortable engaging in Jewish life at home with their family than in more public, organized settings. The report notes that PJ traditionally has reached families through organized institutions such as synagogues, Federations, or JCCâ€™s; thatâ€™s not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than families that are solely Jewish; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.
The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books â€“ with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying â€śmore cultural booksâ€¦ more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazingâ€ť â€“ other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying â€śWe value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.â€ť Itâ€™s very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith familiesâ€™ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Libraryâ€™s efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.
After young interfaith families often come bâ€™nai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post hasÂ a very sweet storyÂ about two familiesâ€™ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah â€“ the fatherâ€™s mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didnâ€™t have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs â€śto confirm their identity.â€ť The fatherâ€™s wife/boyâ€™s mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldnâ€™t have been able to do it. The other family included a Jewish mother from the FSU, married to a man named Bernstein who had a Jewish father but was raised Catholic; the father says, â€śIâ€™m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. Iâ€™m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.â€ť The son says, â€śThe tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.â€ť One more proof of whatâ€™s possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.
That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed inÂ a fascinating episode on interfaith marriageÂ on the BBC radio show “All Things Considered.” The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the U.K., a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50 percent of U.K. Jews are now in interfaith marriages, and that more U.K. Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples â€“ as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas â€“ for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesusâ€™ divinity.
Finally, theÂ new rabbi at Montrealâ€™s Dorshei Emet, reportedly one of the few if not the only Reconstructionist congregations where interfaith weddings are not done, comes with experience officiating for interfaith couples and â€śmakes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.â€ť And Keren McGinity persuasively presentsÂ the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.