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I had a very interesting day yesterday.
It started with a phone interview with a graduate student in journalism writing a story about Jewish-Muslim relationships. She had a Jewish parent and a Muslim parent herself, and was involved with a group of young Jewish-Muslim couples. She told me that some of them had decided to raise their children with Judaism and some hadn’t decided. I told her that at InterfaithFamily we are always interested in what influences some interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life or not.
She said she thought that Jews were “exclusivist” and told me that one couple in the group approached a rabbi, I think she said about conversion, and the rabbi made a comment about Arabs and breeding that was so derogatory I don’t want to repeat it here. She couldn’t see it, but my jaw dropped, it was such an insulting and ignorant comment.
But sadly I shouldn’t have been surprised. I immediately thought of a good friend in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Jewish herself but active in her Reform synagogue, who reported last year that a woman at the synagogue said in her presence “we Jews are dumbing ourselves down by intermarrying.” My friend – herself at the highest level of anyone’s intelligence scale — was so shocked at how insulting the comment was that she couldn’t immediately respond. And then I thought of a survey that a major city federation asked me to analyze a year or two ago in which one couple said that at a Reform synagogue someone who learned they were interfaith said “maybe people like you would be more comfortable” at some other synagogue. It’s hard to believe that these comments are true – yet they keep on happening.
After the phone call I went to a terrific event at the Brown-RISD Hillel co-sponsored by the Genesis Prize, Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel that featured Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky talking about their Jewish journeys. I sat next to a man who asked me what I did and then told me his story. He grew up Orthodox, had a child with his first wife, got divorced, and then married a woman who is not Jewish. His wife doesn’t intend to convert but she keeps a strictly kosher home and his grandchildren call her “bubbe.” But after he re-married his synagogue told him he couldn’t have an aliyah (recite blessings before and after the Torah is read) any longer, so he left the synagogue.
This morning the Good Morning America team was talking about new variations of the Barbie doll and one of the correspondents said that her young children “don’t see color” meaning they don’t distinguish other children based on race. I’m not sure how widespread it is that people see people of other races as “normal.” I do think that young children see different constellations of parents as “normal;” I recently asked my 5-year-old grandson if one of “Joe’s” two mothers wasn’t a police officer, and I am quite sure he doesn’t think twice about his classmates who have two mothers or two fathers.
All of this made me wonder if Jews will ever see “non-Jews” and Jews marrying “non-Jews” as “normal.” At InterfaithFamily we try very hard not to use the term “non-Jew” which is why I put it in quotes; it’s off-putting and people don’t identify as “non-“ anything. We prefer to say “partners from different faith traditions.” But we keep on hearing people say “non-Jew” and it’s very use appears to support viewing the other as not “normal” – an Arab who breeds … or “non-Jews” who aren’t smart – as well as penalizing Jews who marry them.
The last thing that happened yesterday was hearing Michael Douglas tell his story again. As he said last night, and in a great story in the Jewish Week last week, Michael Douglas was told his whole life that he wasn’t Jewish because his mother wasn’t Jewish. When the people from the Genesis Prize came to him and said they wanted to award him the Genesis Prize as an outstanding Jew, he said “this is a mistake, I’m not Jewish.” But his son has gotten the family interested, and became bar mitzvah, and they traveled to Israel, and the Genesis Prize people very wisely recognized the importance of making a statement that the Jewish community needs to recognize and welcome people who are the children of intermarriage or are intermarried themselves but engaging in Jewish life.
Dare I say that the Genesis Prize being awarded to Michael Douglas is a statement that Jews need to not only recognize and welcome, but normalize intermarriage, the children of intermarriage, Jews who intermarry and most important, the partners from different faith traditions married to Jews? It was a ray of hope to end a very interesting day.
Last month, I sat with 25 people who gathered over breakfast to talk about being part of interfaith families. As the Director of an InterfaithFamily community, there is nothing new or remarkable about that; I bring interfaith couples together regularly to share stories and support one another as they explore religious life. What is noteworthy about this particular group of people is that they were all Jewish professionals, working in Hillels around the country. We were attendees at the Hillel International Global Assembly and this was a first-of-its-kind meeting for people who work in Jewish campus life and are in interfaith relationships. Some of the participants in this discussion were “out” about their relationships while others hoped no one from their campus community or staff would know they had attended the meeting. Many others did not feel comfortable attending at all for fear they would be found out, possibly resulting in losing their jobs.
I have written about how one’s choice of partner does not necessarily reflect one’s commitment to Jewish life. This is certainly true personally, and I know scores of other Jewish professionals like me who are wholly dedicated to enriching Jewish life in our generation, and are themselves partnered with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds. With an intermarriage rate of around 70 percent in non-Orthodox Jewish communities, it is clear that Jewish-Jewish couples are about to become a rarer sight than interfaith ones. Many of those who marry someone from another background are active in Jewish life and have every intention of continuing that involvement. Some are so dedicated to a thriving Jewish community that they become Jewish professionals. Yet when they get there, they often feel that they can’t bring their whole selves to their work for fear of being labeled bad role models.
I hear the worry that Jewish campus professionals, more than professionals in other Jewish settings, are especially poised to be role models for young Jews at the time in their lives when they are getting serious about dating and marriage. Being intermarried would sanction the decision to marry out of the tradition, the argument goes. But let’s look realistically at the demographics of our current Jewish college students. According to a recent study, “Among millennials, born between 1981 and 1995, … partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish, half of all Jews in their generation are children of intermarriage” [the Brandeis Millennial Children of Intermarriage study, p.5].
This next generation is often trying to figure out how to honor both parents as they explore religious life on campus and chart a way forward. Furthermore, many if not most of them are interdating or have at least explored the idea. The same study shows that the percentage of young adults who think it is important to marry someone Jewish is extremely low for children of in-married parents and even lower for the children of intermarried parents [Ibid, pg. 43]. Pretending that Jewish college students are largely choosing only to date other Jews is causing us to miss out on some profound conversations. They are not merely deciding on a partner; they are contemplating how they will bring meaning into their lives, they are beginning to own and make decisions as adults for their own spiritual journeys, and they are determining what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
These college students need diverse role models, a plethora of professional exemplars so they can see how an adult makes Jewishly committed decisions when Judaism is not the default. They need models to demonstrate how interfaith families navigate raising kids in a still-conflicted Jewish community, and how couples have healthy conversations with in-laws and grandparents about religious choices. If they do partner with someone Jewish, they will inevitably have extended family members who marry someone outside of Judaism at their family holiday table. They need models and forums to discuss how we can best navigate the increasing diversity in the Jewish community.
We are also missing the whole picture when we think only of undergraduates in the Hillel picture. Many Hillels have vibrant graduate student and young adult communities. Large numbers of these young people arrive on campus already having made their decisions about a life partner, and many of those relationships are with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. They also seek support and models as they begin their lives together.
Those of us with religiously diverse families are uniquely situated as Jewish professionals to bring wisdom, knowledge and compassion to interfaith families exploring Jewish life. Drawing on our personal stories and experience, we are poised to model for others how good communication, flexibility and introspection can help strengthen the next generation of seekers. The current generation of inter-partnered Jewish professionals aren’t the first … and won’t be the last. Judaism’s greatest leader, Moses, married Tzipporah. Not only was she not a Hebrew; she was the daughter of a Midianite priest. Her father, Jethro, condoned this union and even offered Moses sound advice on leading the Israelites.
Hillel has come a very long way. When I began working for the campus organization, it was made clear that professionals would not be allowed to perform an interfaith marriage ceremony, let alone be partnered with someone from another background. Thank you, Hillel International, for providing the space for such an important conversation when field professionals were brave enough to step forward and express the deep need for community and support. I look forward to the time when all Jewish professionals can bring their whole selves to their workplaces, proud to be exemplars for the Jewish campus community as they dedicate their life and work to strengthening Judaism for the next generation.