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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Thereâ€™s been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who weâ€™ve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in theÂ Washington Post:Â I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.
Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offeredÂ Itâ€™s Time to Say â€śYes.â€ťÂ Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation howÂ The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a â€śYesâ€ť to Interfaith Couples.Â But another young Conservative rabbi wrote aboutÂ five steps to â€śsave Conservative Judaismâ€ťÂ â€“ with no mention of interfaith families.
In June an article in theÂ ForwardÂ about rabbis trying toÂ make the Conservative movement more gay-friendlyÂ mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; â€śLau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.â€ť
Lau-Lavieâ€™s Lab/Shul hadÂ announced an annual celebrationÂ on June 13 featuring â€śthe revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americansâ€ť â€“ but the news is out in an piece by theÂ Forwardâ€™sÂ Jane Eisner,Â Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews â€” And The Jew-ish.Â As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use theÂ ger toshav, resident alien, concept â€świthin a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.â€ť He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he wonâ€™t co-officiate). He will engage academics to â€śstudy whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.â€ť He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.
Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is â€śfascinatedâ€ť by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, toÂ simultaneously commentÂ that while we â€śneedâ€ť Lau-Lavieâ€™s approach, it wonâ€™t succeed unless Jews â€śunderstand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.â€ť
I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, hasÂ expressed open-nessÂ to the experiment â€” but cautions that itâ€™s the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.
In the newÂ ForwardÂ piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children arenâ€™t raised Jews-by-religion, itâ€™s not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have aÂ new paperÂ released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews donâ€™t measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.
That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away. Â Eisner says she wants to â€śsustain and enrich modern Jewish life;â€ť Cohen says â€śBeing Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us â€“ to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.â€ť We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands â€“ and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life â€“ with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.
In an otherwise really nice article,Â How My Daughterâ€™s Bat Mitzvah Almost Didnâ€™t Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family â€śsurvived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.â€ť Â Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but theÂ ForwardÂ editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.
In an otherwise fine article titledÂ College doesnâ€™t turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says â€ścollege education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.â€ť In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse â€“ being intermarried â€“ with assimilation. He should know better.
Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackleyâ€™sÂ TEDx talkÂ about how they are raising their children withÂ Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.
Iâ€™ll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim Keenâ€™sÂ Inside IntermarriageÂ â€“ I was honored to write the Foreword â€“ will be available on August 1 but can beÂ pre-orderedÂ now. The third edition of our friend Anita Diamantâ€™sÂ The New Jewish WeddingÂ â€“ now titledÂ The Jewish Wedding NowÂ â€“ came out this past week.
IÂ applaudedÂ in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movementâ€™s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of theÂ Audacious Hospitality ToolkitÂ surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?
The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movementâ€™s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism andÂ InterfaithFamily.
But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
In 2000 I wrote an op-ed,Â Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, forÂ Reform JudaismÂ magazine, and a longerÂ We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish FamiliesÂ for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include â€“ indeed, embrace â€“ not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as â€śin,â€ť as part of â€śus,â€ť as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as â€śout,â€ť â€śother,â€ť not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person â€śisâ€ť Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to â€śdoâ€ť Jewish.
Itâ€™s not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.
One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, â€śitâ€™s wonderful that your daughter has a partner â€“ but wouldnâ€™t you prefer that she were straight?â€ť No, he wouldnâ€™t, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and Iâ€™ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said â€śis she Jewishâ€ť? right in front of my daughterâ€™s husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be â€śsub-optimal.â€ť
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children arenâ€™t â€śreallyâ€ť Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like â€śger toshavâ€ť is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they donâ€™t want their childrenâ€™s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more â€śinâ€ť or â€śoutâ€ť and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies â€“ and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.
A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the â€śusâ€ť to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have anÂ aliyahÂ excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.
After theÂ Cohen Centerâ€™s recent researchÂ showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogueâ€™s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCARâ€™s books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. Thatâ€™s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionistsâ€™ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?
Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to â€śdo both.â€ť What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors â€“ when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion â€“ they mostly get â€śnoâ€ť for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most wonâ€™t co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who havenâ€™t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we donâ€™t have to recommend or favor raising children as â€śboth,â€ť providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.
The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive â€“ yes, a truly audacious â€“ hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and donâ€™t need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.
As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?
Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I donâ€™t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didnâ€™t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Â Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family memberâ€™s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families donâ€™t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Â Judaism from on high (Iâ€™m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. Itâ€™s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. Â People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Â Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sportâ€™s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. Â If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declaredâ€”thatâ€™s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed â€śsecular American.â€ť Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldnâ€™t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. Â This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription.Â I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizableÂ Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, letâ€™s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that â€śeveryoneâ€ť will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire â€śbadâ€ť or â€śwrongâ€ť or for â€śpeople who just want an easy way out,â€ť then the people will make their own decisions and they wonâ€™t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.
I spend a lot of time at Starbucks. All different Starbucks locations. Lately, I have been seeing signs about it being a â€śThird PlaceÂ in our daily lives.â€ťÂ We have our work places, our homes and we have the coffee shop. I think for lot of people, walking into Starbucks is comforting and familiar. The smells, the furniture, the vibe, the culture there, the drinksâ€”we know what to expect and it feels good.
At our recent InterfaithFamily/Chicago event, Barbara Mahany read from her new book, Slowing Time. She talked about how children raised with both Judaism and Catholicism in their lives often understand the in-between spaces of life. They relate to the grays, to nuance, to ambiguity and discrepancy and can hold multiple identities and ideas in one intact soul and psyche. They donâ€™t practice a new religion or a Jewish-Catholic blend. Rather, they hold both traditions in their hearts and minds. They keep them separate and draw from each at different times. They experience both. They understand about both of their parentâ€™s backgrounds. In a way, this is a third place for Judaism and Christianity.
I have heard some people refer to the interfaith schools that exist around the country where families with one Christian parent and one Jewish parent come to learn and worship with the intent to raise their children as â€śbothâ€ť as being Third Spaces. These communities arenâ€™t synagogues or churches but have elements of both and clergy from both.
At a recent teaching session at one of Chicagoâ€™s interfaith programs, the parents asked me whether any liberal synagogues could open their doors to families raising their children â€śboth.â€ť Could synagogues have a track for these families where they have a certain membership level knowing that the children wouldnâ€™t use the religious school? These families could send their children to mid-week Hebrew school and of course become part of the community on Shabbat and holidays, during social justice pursuits and on retreats. These children would have a sacred space to mark the first time they read from the Torah scroll, which is often very important to their families.
In order for this to happen, congregations would have to accept and appreciate families who want Judaism in their lives in this way. They would have to accept that everyoneâ€™s Jewish expression looks different and that every family configuration is different. These families who want both religions in their lives are often very thoughtful about faith and traditions and eager learners and worship regulars.
I think if synagogues could find their way toward working with and hearing families who want Judaism in their lives in authentic ways but who also need to have the children learn about and experience the other parent’s faith, it will enhance the community. Struggling to understand and define the boundaries of “in” and “out” will help us all clarify our path, our fears and hopes and our vulnerabilities. Having a community of diverse practices under a shared tent of united desire to see Judaism continue and flourish is good for all of us.
For some, the synagogue or being with their community is a third space in importance next to their home and their office. For others, it falls farther down their line of places they frequent (perhaps after Starbucks). Do you think the Jewish world can or should find space for families who see religion in a third way? Not as just Jewish or just Catholic but as something more fluid?
When it comes to religion, many parents donâ€™t want to choose for their kids. Their hesitation isnâ€™t just about choosing a single religion over anotherâ€”they are hesitant to make any choices about religious education for their children at all. What I most often hear is that people want to allow their kids to choose for themselves.
In an age when we value our kids for being independent thinkers and want to allow them to develop freely, I completely understand this sentiment. Many adults donâ€™t look favorably on the religious education they received when they were children. They donâ€™t want to force their own kids to believe anything in particular. And if they are part of an interfaith couple, they often donâ€™t want one religion to take precedence. The result is that they often doâ€¦nothing. Or very little.
Even though I can see where this well-intentioned reasoning is coming from, Iâ€™d like to play the devilâ€™s advocate. Hereâ€™s why:
1)Â Â Â Â Â Every adult has the option to make choices around religion. In fact, adult children will make decisions about religion no matter what we have given them. So I would like to eliminate this as a concern for parents raising young children. No matter what you do, they will choose what works for them.
2)Â Â Â Â Â Parents are scared of indoctrinating their kids. I know that the word sounds terrible, authoritarian. And of course Iâ€™m using it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to make a point. All Iâ€™m saying is that parents try and pass on what we hope our kids will learn according to values we think are worth living by. Call it â€śparentingâ€ť or â€śteaching.â€ť We teach our kids about our values in many arenas: political and social values, the importance of education, open mindedness, how to treat others. We â€śindoctrinateâ€ť from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they lay their heads down through the stories we tell, the schools we choose, the way we talk about daily events. We teach them the value of music as we schlep them, often against their will, to piano lessons. Itâ€™s not a bad thing.
We are teaching them the values we hold dear because we believe that our values lead to treating others well, and a life well lived.Â So why do we feel terrified to teach our kids about religion? If you develop a clear idea of what values, traditions, holidays and ritual are important to you and your family, there is nothing wrong with teaching them what it looks like to live within that framework. If they donâ€™t like it, they will reject it, or pieces of it. But they will never be able to say that they didnâ€™t know what was important to you.
3)Â Â Â Â Â Give them some knowledge! If they know more about the traditions represented in their home, they will be better able to make those decisions as adults we all want to see them make. If you give them nothing or very little, from my experience, they will grow up having many questions, little foundation, and perhaps feel frustrated that they were cheated out of not one, but TWO great legacies. Give them the knowledge and experience so that they can be better educated choosers. If you donâ€™t, they will likely grow up feeling like they donâ€™t know enough to even walk into a religious institution. (I have to thank my father for this one. He enrolled me, reluctantly, in Hebrew school as a kid. He argued that I would clearly rebel against it as he had, but wanted to ensure that I knew what I was rebelling against. He ended up with a kid who is a rabbi. See how you just canâ€™t control them no matter what you do?)
4)Â Â Â Â Â That leads me to my last point.Â One thing is for sure: You canâ€™t win! I know plenty of adults who felt they received far too much religious instruction, and plenty who complain that they were given very little.Â As with everything in parenting, follow your instincts and know that your kids will, indeed, be independent thinkers and not necessarily follow your pathâ€¦no matter what you do.
I am fully aware that I inculcate my values at home. I send my kids to a dual-immersion Spanish program because I want them to value other cultures and be able to see from the inside what another personâ€™s experience of the world might be like. I tell them who Iâ€™m voting for, and why. And I teach them Jewish values. I tell them as we are stopping by the road to give a homeless person some food that the Jewish value, tzedakah, means that humans are responsible for bringing justice to the world.
At Passover time, I press the idea that no one should ever be enslaved and we need to lift up those who cannot lift themselves up. Every time we say â€śmotsi,â€ť the Jewish prayer before eating bread, I am teaching them through a Jewish lens that we must pause in gratitude before delving in.
I am inculcating values they will live by and someday grapple with as they are deciding who they want to be. Sure, Iâ€™d love for them to always value the same things I do, but at some point they will grow to be independent beings who may reject any or all of what weâ€™ve given them. Which is what we all want in the first place.