News Roundup

In case you missed it, some interesting news pieces from the past week:

1: The Chicago Tribune ran a thorough article about the complications and hurdles lesbian couples face when trying to start a family, especially while state and federal laws differ in permission and scope. That the couple in the article is interfaith could certainly be an extra complication.

At first glance, Jennifer Snyder and Linda Borchew could not have been more different. Borchew grew up in Des Plaines and is Jewish. Snyder was raised Presbyterian in a one-stoplight town in central Illinois.

It also brought to mind two recent articles by Susan Goldberg, published on InterfaithFamily.com, about lesbian couples, parenting and the role of religion.

2: In the really random interdating news world, it turns out that Sandra Fluke is dating a Jew. To refresh your memory, Fluke came into the news at the end of February when Rush Limbaugh declared that her support of free, mandated contraceptives at Georgetown University made her a “prostitute” or a “slut.” Even more random: somehow dating a Jewish guy (Adam Mutterperl) means Fluke, by association, is part of the evil “socialist” Jewish mafia (aka, the Jewish Federations of North America).

3: If you live in the Sacramento area, you likely were super excited by the March 2012 / Adar 5772 edition of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region‘s newsletter. The spread of pages 10-11 is all about interfaith families. We get a nice shout out in “Welcoming all into the Jewish community.” It’s a good read!

4: Thanks to the five InterfaithFamily.com readers who sent this New York Times article to me. An Ohio youth of mixed heritage (“His father is black and Baptist from Georgia and his mother is white and Jewish from Iowa”), was the first person of color to win the world championship for Irish dancing, and he has won the contest for three straight years.

“They said, ‘We never thought it would happen, but we’re thrilled that it did,’ ” said Drew’s mother, Andee Goldberg. She added, “They don’t even know he’s Jewish. That hasn’t been broached. I think it would be too overwhelming.”

In Case You Missed It…

A few interesting articles that you might have missed:

1. Rabbi Bruce Warshal opined on why interfaith families should raise their children in just one religion. Check out Choose One But Not Two Religions.

2. A clip from Samon Koletkar’s “Mahatma Moses Comedy Tour,” during which he discsusses being a Jew in America. (Warning, he also drops the “r” word, too many times, at the end. To counter that, a PSA from Glee‘s Becky and Sue.)

3. Instead of arguing about how to count the Jewish population, an argument for increasing egalitarian parenting. Why?

Both quantitative and qualitative studies have found that if the intermarried Jew is a woman, the children will more likely be raised Jewish. Further, intermarried Jewish men stand a greater chance of raising children to identify as Jews if the organized Jewish community will count those children as Jews.

Intermarried Jewish men can raise Jewish children as effectively as intermarried Jewish women provided they are able to integrate work and family, currently a national challenge evident by President Barack Obama urging ìTake time to be a dad, today.î Increasing the contemporary understanding of the relationship between gender, religion and culture will be what determines how Jewish is the Jewish population in the future.

4. Effective March, 2010, gay and lesbian couples in Washington, DC were able to legally marry. In what’s believed to be a first, an Orthodox rabbi, Steve Greenberg (who’s openly gay), officiated at the marriage of a gay couple at the synagogue/">Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Mazal tov!

5. Last week, I was unable to go to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. (Luckily, Joanna and Ed were able to go and represent InterfaithFamily.com.) There, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer gave the opening address, bravely (given his audience) talking about how “continuity” should not be the Jewish community’s focus. Instead, he suggested, it should be learning. From the op-ed version of his speech:

Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with e-mails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.

Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.

We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts — the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.

I agree. The rest of his speech-turned-op-ed is worth reading as well.

Mazal Tov, Chely and Lauren

When our celebrity columnist, Nate Bloom, wrote about the engagement of Chely Wright to Lauren Blitzer, he posited, in an earlier draft, that theirs was the first celebrity, lesbian, interfaith wedding. I wasn’t certain. Much to the amusement of my friend and colleague over at Jewish Boston, David Levy, I started googling for proof. I tweeted,

This is not what feminism looks like: http://ow.ly/4OnQ0 (“Why are so many famous Jewish women lesbians?”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, googling failed to be helpful. The Google results ranged from highly amusing to pornographic to conspiracy theory meets anti-Semitism and homophobia (the latter can be seen, at your own discretion, by following the link in the above tweet), so I turned to some twitter buddies for help.

Both David and I asked questions to our followers at large, and to specific twitter buddies like Jewish musician Julie Silver and the folks at Keshet and Jewish Womens’ Archive, if they knew of other celebrity lesbian interfaith couples. (I believe Julie’s answer included her and her beloved wife…)

Unable to prove with certainty whether or not Chely and Lauren would be the first lesbian, interfaith, celebrity couple to be wed, the assertion was cut from the celeb column.

So why am I mentioning this now? Chely and Lauren will be married this weekend!

Although few details of the big day have been revealed thus far, Chely dished that it will be an outdoor ceremony with both a reverend and rabbi officiating, as the singer is Christian and her fiancée is Jewish. The reception will have a deejay, and guests would be wise to bring their dancing shoes!

And we, at IFF headquarters, are curious: which rabbi is co-officiating the ceremony? Lauren and Chely, if you’d recommend her/his officiating prowess to others, please recommend that they join our free Jewish Clergy Referral Service. We’re always looking out for rabbis who will officiate for interfaith couples, will co-officiate with clergy of other religions, and are LGBTQ friendly!

Mazal tov to the brides (kallot), whether they’re the first or amongst other happy couples!

Sunday Was a Busy Day for Weddings in New York

As you may recall, we were all too happy and excited to help fill one of the 175 requests we get each week to our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. This one in particular was for Dee and Kate, who would be among the first legally married gay couples in New York this past weekend.

Their marriage was covered extensively  by Newsday.

Another interfaith, Jewish wedding that also received media attention on Sunday: Avenue Q’s (closeted) muppet Rod to his beau. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum officiated outside the New York City clerk’s office, where CBST, NY’s LGBT synagogue, hung a rainbow flag as a chuppah.

“To have this finally happen for us — especially so soon after Will and Kate — is unbelievable to me,” Rod said in a statement. “I realize there are a lot of broken hearts out there now that Ricky and I are off the market — step back, all you chorus boys! — but I’ve known since day one that Ricky is the husband for me. He’s the furry fellow I want to spend my life with both on and off the stage.” (The Advocate)

But back to real people.

Newsday has a wonderful photo gallery of Kate and Dee preparing for their wedding, then getting married. (All photo credits: Jessica Rotziewicz.) Here are some highlights:

From their home in Patchogue, Dee Smith holds up her phone that has her mother, Randee Smith, of Smithtown, on video chat, so she can talk with Rabbi Lev Baesh via Skype along with her and Kate Wrede. This is the second time the couple is chatting with the rabbi about plans for their wedding ceremony. (July 14, 2011)
Rabbi Lev Baesh, director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy at InterfaithFamily.com, draws a photo of the wedding ceremony for Dee Smith and Kate Wrede to see on their computer while using Skype to discuss their plans. (July 7, 2011)
Kate Wrede and Dee Smith of Patchogue choose a glass to break at their wedding ceremony, along with a mezuzah, at Unique Judaica in Syosset. Following Jewish tradition, the couple will hang the mezuzah on the doorpost of the entrance to their home. (July 10, 2011)

Hey, Kate and Dee, if you need help putting the mezuzah up, check out our video and booklet!

Kate and Dee Smith look into each others’ eyes as Rabbi Lev Baesh explains how this is more intimate than the kiss at the end of the ceremony at Viana Hotel & Spa in Westbury. (July 24, 2011)
Kate Wrede and Dee Smith wrap themselves in a blanket as part of their wedding ceremony. (July 24, 2011)

That “blanket” is a tallit (sometimes pronounced tallis), which is a prayer shawl. From our Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples: “In some Jewish ceremonies, modeled after Sephardic tradition, the couple may be wrapped in a large tallis during some portion of the wedding ceremony when blessings are recited. It is often used for the final benediction. This ritual is adaptable for any wedding.”

Mazal tov, again, to Dee and Kate (and Rod and Ricky), and to all of the other couples who are now legally able to marry in NY State!

This Weekend, At Midnight, Under The Chuppah

We excitedly mentioned that we’ve been able to help Dee and Kate, who will be getting married at 12:01am on Sunday, July 24 (the moment same-sex marriage becomes legal in New York State) find a rabbi to officiate at their (Jewish, interfaith) wedding.

Here’s a video, via Newsday, about the happy couple:

Mazal tov!

As a bonus, we also have an essay that Rabbi Lev Baesh, director of our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, and the lucky officiant for Kate and Dee’s upcoming nuptials, wrote about this experience:

You might not guess this, but it can be easier to find a liberal rabbi to officiate a same-sex wedding than to find one to officiate a Jewish wedding for an interfaith couple.  This Saturday night at midnight, I will be officiating the first legal gay wedding in the State of NY.  The couple found me in Massachusetts through InterfaithFamily.com’s free Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service, after being turned away by several rabbis in the NY area.
 
What never ceases to amaze me is the dedication some interfaith couples have to finding Jewish connection in this important celebration in their family’s life.  It also doesn’t surprise me that a gay interfaith couple, which faces potential discrimination on several fronts, continues to search for that connection as well.  Thankfully we have this web based service, and the dedication of its staff to equality, that makes it possible.

I have worked with InterfaithFamily.com for several years, but began officiating and co-officiating interfaith weddings 20 years ago.  It was both the high level of acceptance my religious Jewish family had towards people of diversity, and my own struggle as a gay man to find connection in the religious heritage I deeply loved, that moved me to make it easier for people to find connection here as well. Reform Judaism has been full of social justice activities and drive for the world around us, but is only in the past decades seeing the challenge it places on its own committed members and potential members, by not welcoming both GLBT and interfaith couples in a bigger way.

There has been a shift in both the welcoming of GLBT and interfaith families of recent past, but institutional change is slow and haphazard.  Gay, lesbian and transgender rabbis are welcome to study for ordination, but the prayer books, religious school materials and social conversations still refer to heterosexual families as primary and desired.  Interfaith programming has increased and many of the congregations in our liberal movements are more than 40% interfaith families.  However, the leadership of the movement still can’t accept an interfaith married person into the rabbinic school. And, with a nearly 50% or greater number of Jews in interfaith partnerships and marriages nationally, the liberal Jewish movements still see them as a minority when it comes to programming and organizational decision making.

It is both the GLBT and interfaith nature of this wedding, with its high profile status as the first legal gay wedding in NY, that may give us the power to move the liberal Jewish world further in its path toward internal acceptance of all its diversity.  With the liberal Jewish world coming around to the reality it faces, of both interfaith and gay families (some living in the same households) making Jewish choices, there can be great strength in changing the nature of acceptance of diversity on a national level.  As much as this wedding is a triumph for same-sex families, we still have a lot of work to do to bring national value to acceptance of the full diversity of our populous.

May this wedding be not just the first of many in NY, but the gentle push forward that makes room for other states and other religious movements to open their doors wide to the people who already love so much of what we value as a free and inclusive society.

Happy and Proud

People who know me know that I am rarely satisfied. When something really positive happens, I am usually immediately thinking of what more could be done.

But I want to pause and say that I am as happy and proud as I could be that InterfaithFamily.com is playing a role in what is being described as the first, legal, gay marriage in New York. I have a lot of personal feelings about this that I want to share.

There was controversy when we started our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy and our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. People said we would badger rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples – something we have never done. I felt to a certainty that helping interfaith couples have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate or co-officiate at their weddings – something we have consistently done, at a current rate of 175 couples a month – would be a positive factor towards future Jewish engagement of those couples. I’m convinced it was the smartest move our organization ever made.

Ten years ago when IFF was founded I confess that I wasn’t sure how I felt about gay marriage. Then I got to know Sue Edelman and I got to know Rabbi Lev Baesh and thankfully it became a no-brainer to me that same-sex couples deserve marriage equality. I also learned that most people say that even more LGBT than straight relationships involving Jews are also interfaith relationships, and we have always published content aimed at supporting gay interfaith relationships (check out our new LGBT Resource Page), and that was clearly the right thing to do too.

A year ago I made a presentation to the Jewish Federation of North America’s planners group with my friend Idit Klein, the executive director of the leading Jewish LGBT advocacy organization, Keshet. Idit and I had a friendly debate about whether LGBT Jews or Jews in interfaith relationships were more marginalized in the Jewish community. You could say that IFF’s over-arching goal is to not have interfaith couples marginalized in the Jewish community. If IFF can help gay interfaith couples overcome the extra hurdles they face, so much the better.

Last Wednesday when I saw Dee Smith’s officiation referral request and read that they were going to be the first gay couple married in New York I went running out of my office with excitement. We quickly put Lev, who directs our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, in touch with the couple. We thought he would be the perfect rabbi for the couple and that they would love him, they apparently did, and I am thrilled for Lev that he will be having a role in making history on July 24.

The big deal here is that there is going to be legal gay marriage in New York. I was proud to live in Massachusetts when our state legalized gay marriage, I was proud when my childhood friend Richard Palmer wrote the Connecticut Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in that state, and I was disappointed when the electorate in Maine where I spend a lot of time voted against it. I hope that New York has turned the tide in favor of marriage equality.

But it is also a big deal for the Jewish community that the first legal gay marriage in New York involves an interfaith couple who sought to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding. And I am very happy and proud that our organization was available and able to make that happen.

NY: First Gay Marriage!

It was with great excitement that I heard the news from the New York Senate a few Shabboses ago: in a vote of 33-29, the state passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage! The bill would come into effect on July 24, 2011. In honor of NY State, we updated our homepage’s news section linking to our newly updated LGBT Resource Page.

Like many, I started hearing about the colorful plans for weddings, non-profits and individuals alike doing what they could to prepare for the throngs of couples who will want to take advantage of the new law shortly after it comes into effect. (One of my favorites? The “pop-up chapel” planned for July 30 in Central Park.)

But then, via our free Jewish clergy officiation referral service, we received an email requesting a rabbi to officiate at what will be New York’s “first gay marriage.” Enthusiastically, we jumped on the task. (Not that we’re biased, but the office was maybe slightly more enthusiastic about this request than the hundreds of others we receive – but only slightly, of course, since we’re thrilled to be able to help out so many of you!)

Our own rabbi Lev Baesh will be in NY to officiate at their interfaith, Jewish wedding. The couple, Dee and Kate, want their wedding to be a wonderful celebration. As such, they’re inviting everyone, even you.

We’re thrilled for the couple, Dee and Katemazal tov!

Updated to add: For more, please read Ed Case’s blog post, Happy and Proud. Stay tuned for more details as we get them…

Pride in Welcoming the Stranger

For some, June is known as “Pride Month.” The Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village, June 1969, were the catalyst for the gay (and, now, LGBTQetc) rights movement both in the US and around the world.

Here in Boston, there was both a Dyke March on Friday night (complete with a Shabbat dinner picnic potluck) and the rainy Pride Parade on Saturday. Around North America (and many other regions of the world), parades and activities happen throughout the month in recognition of Stonewall and LGBTQ rights (achieved or desired).

Following the month’s trend, the Reform Judaism blog has a post today called “On Being Straight in the World’s First Gay Synagogue.” And though it’s up there to mark June as Pride month, I think there’s more to it than lessons on LGBTQ inclusion. The author, Maggie Anton Parkhurst, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first gay synagogue (founded in 1972), writes:

We are diverse in more ways than sexual orientation. Yes, we are a Reform congregation, but our members have all sorts of Jewish backgrounds, from converts and Workman’s Circle yiddishists, through mainline Conservative to Orthodox yeshivah bochers. Despite these differences, we share a commitment to gender neutrality and equality at services, along with lots of singing.

We also represent Los Angeles’s varied ethnicities, which is abundantly clear when members read from the Book of Esther in fourteen different languages at Purim. Tolerance and embracing the stranger are BCC’s hallmarks, especially the latter, as everyone walking in on Shabbat receives a warm welcome. Even and especially people who feel excluded, or worry about feeling excluded, at other synagogues.

At first, all this diversity was uncomfortable compared to the suburban temple where our children grew up….

This is key. Whether welcoming individuals or families who are LGBTQ or interfaith, something as simple and easy as welcoming each and every person goes a long way. Have a greeter at the door to say “welcome” and “Shabbat shalom” to each person – be they regulars or newcomers. Every congregation – Reform or not, LGBTQ or not – can take a lesson from Beth Chayim Chadashim to ensure that all of us, strangers all, feel embraced and welcomed.

If your congregation has a welcoming practice that you’d like to share with others, leave a comment! And for more resources on making your synagogues welcoming and inclusive, check out our Resource Center for Program Providers and Resource Center for Jewish Clergy.

Hodge Podge!

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about intermarriage, interfaith Jews and the eternal “who is a Jew” debate. Some of it was spurred by the attack on Rep. Giffords, and the Jewish community’s near unanimous response that, yes, she is Jewish. (See, for example, Julie Wiener’s recent column in The Jewish Week, Is Anyone Jewish Enough?)

But that wasn’t the only source of news this week. So cuddle up with a mug of hot cocoa, stay warm and watch the snowstorms move in while you read another hodge podge:

An article in the Jewish Exponent looked at bullying in the Jewish community, specifically in Jewish schools.

Even if violence is minimal, day school students said that doesn’t make the emotional or mental abuse any easier to bear.

“It’s worse for us because our cliques can’t be based on color or race, so instead, it goes a little bit deeper,” Becca Richman, 16, a junior at Barrack Hebrew Academy, said during a discussion on bullying at an Anti-Defamation League youth leadership conference in late November.

Since everyone shares the same ethnicity, students might discriminate over whether someone is overly observant, not observant enough, from an intermarried family, homosexual, wealthy and so forth, her classmates added.

Read more from Taking Bullying by the Horns to see how the problem is being addressed.

Meanwhile, the religion blog in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, linked to a story on Intermarriage, the law of return and the modern Israeli state. It might be interesting to you to read some of the proposals Israel has for dealing with intermarriage, people who are “Jewish enough” to move to Israel but not “Jewish enough” to be considered Jewish for marriage. (I will add the disclaimer that when I read the line, “One brave exception is Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a member of the Knesset from the Shas political party.” I had to fight the urge to stop reading…)

Now, I wouldn’t normally share an article (Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match) that boasts an OU (Orthodox Union) approved dating site, but I how else would I have learned about intermarriage statistics for the Jewish Deaf community?

In the past, the rate of intermarriage among the deaf was close to 60%.

Another article looking at the “who’s a Jew” question in Israel focuses instead on Y.B., a 23-year-old would-be convert to Judaism (he was raised Jewish, has a non-Jewish mother) who is gay.

The soldier’s experience highlights the plight that gay would-be converts to Judaism face in Israel: Because there is no separation of state and religion, and the state religion is regulated by the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, it is practically impossible for an openly gay person to convert to Judaism. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a would-be convert who rejects a tenet of the Torah — in this case, the prohibition against homosexual intercourse — cannot join the faith.

And:

An IDF spokesman denied that Y.B. was expelled from the course because he is gay.

“The IDF believes that a person’s origin, gender and sexual orientation cannot have an impact on his or her ability to appropriately complete the conversion process,” the spokesman said in response to a JTA query. “The soldier in question chose to leave the course of his own accord because, as he noted, ‘He did not feel ready to complete the conversion process.’ The soldier was clearly informed he could return to the course when he felt ready to do so.”

Y.B. says that during his meeting with conversion course officials, he signed a form saying he was not ready to complete the process only because he was told he could not continue to study if he indeed was gay. The stipulation given for his return would be based on his agreeing to pursue relationships with women, Y.B. says he was told.

Soldier’s story highlights plight facing gay would-be converts in Israel is an interesting read. It made me wonder if there are other cases of soldiers being ousted from converting for not following one of the commandments. Have people been ousted for carrying outside an eruv on Shabbat? For wearing shatnez (fabric containing both wool and linen)?

So that’s some food for thought… Let us know what you think!

12 Days of Hodgepodge

Let’s just call this a random hodgepodge. A bunch of stuff came across my desk (or over the series of tubes that make up the internet) this week that were too interesting not to share:

Step aside Chelsea Clinton and Mark Mevinsky, here comes Lauren Bush and David Lauren! Yup, the grandaughter of former President George H. W. Bush, and niece of former President George W. Bush, is marrying David Lauren, son of the famous Jewish fashion designer Ralph Lauren. The Jewish press has run plenty of headlines proclaiming that she’ll become “Lauren Lauren” but, really, let’s hope she keeps her birth-name.

Remember that General Assembly that Ed’s mentioned a few times? Well, our friends at Keshet were there too. And they made a great video while they were there:

After seeing one of our tweets, Rachel Barenblat wrote a blog post expanding on her reply to our tweet, “Having a Christmas tree doesn’t make you “less Jewish” – or does it?” And it isn’t just about conifers. And in response to that blog post, MiriyaB posted her thoughts as well.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a survey today that showed that Americans are divided over what greetings businesses should use during the December holidays. This time of year, do you prefer a generic “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas”?

A contributor to our website blogged about a teachable moment: teaching children about God. How do you teach your children about God?

The San Francisco Chronicle offered up a list of 11 musicians who “found religion.” I enjoyed the photo of rapper Shyne Moses Levi in his Breslover garb.

If you’re visiting a church this Christmas for the first time, the Old First Reformed UCC church of Philadelphia has some helpful hints.

And our friends at JewishBoston.com suggested that this is the “most” Jewish of Christmas songs:

Bonus: Have you ever wondered, “Jew, or Not?” Given how many of you read our interfaith celebrities column, I’m guessing you have. You’re welcome.