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This is a guest post by Jeremy Burton, executive director of Boston’s JCRC. After seeing his tweets about an undead, supernatural interfaith wedding on TV, I challenged him to blog about it. Luckily, he accepted. You can also follow him on twitter, @burtonjm.
After a tumultuous relationship, this week we witnessed one of the most unusual interfaith Jewish marriages, between two Boston werewolves on SyFy’s Being Human. This seems as good a time as any to reflect back on a three-season journey of identity and the story of one of TV’s more proudly Jewish character’s search for happiness (warning: spoiler alerts).Josh Levison began this series (a knockoff of a BBC original of the same title) as a recently turned werewolf who distances himself from his family amidst his struggle to reconcile his new reality with his former life. Filled with loathing over whether he deserves happiness or will only bring harm to those he loves, he has found friendship with a colonial era vampire, Aidan. Together they commit to help each other explore their lingering humanity. They make their home in Boston and Josh works as an orderly at a local hospital (Aidan is a nurse, which allows for easy access to an abundant blood supply).
Much to their surprise, the home they rent happens to have a newbie ghost in residence, Sally, a recently murdered bride-to-be of South Asian descent. Their home comes to serve as a kind of supernatural Moishe House with them as the facilitating in-residence guides to various visiting undead creatures: newbies learning to “live” with their conditions, old-timers engaging in long debates about evolving ethical challenges of traditional occult ways in a modern world (the ethics of live blood donors v. blood banks; are possessions acceptable and under what circumstances?), all while challenging each other to strive for more effort toward achieving an aspirational “normal” life.
Josh’s journey is played out in several relationships, including his on-again off-again rapprochement with his lesbian sister, and his relationship with Nora a doctor at the hospital. One constant throughout the series is that even as Josh struggles with honest relationships with himself and his loved ones, he is deeply connected to his Jewish identity, carefully protecting his Star of David necklace from damage every month before he turns. Plus there’s the occasional Jewish joke, usually in the kitchen.
Nora and Josh deal with pregnancy, miscarriage, breakups, and along the way the accidental turning of Nora who is now a werewolf too. As the relationship deepens, Josh persuades her to take him to meet her family. Nora’s greatest anxiety about this event is made evident when, to his astonishment, she hides his necklace under his clothing so that they don’t discover his Jewish identity. This concern for their judgment is made moot when it becomes clear there was abuse in Nora’s childhood and Josh determines to protect her from an environment that is still not a healthy space for her.
Somewhere along the line these four undead youth find a new family in each other, one filled with love, trust, and unimaginable acts of compassion for each other (when Sally is brought back to corporeal form as a Zombie, Aidan allows her to eat his healing flesh rather than leave her to chow down on humans).
After prolonged second guessing, Josh and Nora become engaged in truly romantic fashion. Initially wanting a well-planned wedding, they move up the date so as to marry before Sally dies a second time (hard to explain but trust me on this). Nora reaches out to Josh’s sister, Emily, who despite their difficulties plans his bachelor party at which, in a moment of life saving urgency, Josh and Aidan are outed as these magical creatures. Josh pleads with Nora for understanding, begging for the kind of acceptance he gave her when she came out, prompting her memorable line: “You’re comparing being a murderer to being gay?”
But when the wedding day arrives, Emily returns, determined to accept and embrace her brother for the totality of his identity, and also to ensure the wedding goes on as planned despite the minor distraction of a battle to the death with an oddly yiddishist survivor of the Andover, MA witch trials; because after all Emily rode the Boston T (subway) for 45 minutes to get to this wedding and how dare they postpone now?
And so we find ourselves in the living room, with a chuppah built by a very WASPy vampire (he was a Minuteman in the Revolution) who got himself an internet ordination for the ceremony, a ghost as maid-of-honor, and this interfaith werewolf couple saying their vows before select human friends and family. As Aidan and Josh appreciate this very normal moment they also recognize the completely unusual circumstances.
In the end (so far), Josh’s journey wasn’t about becoming human again (he tried that and failed). His was a search for his true family — alive and undead — who know his authentic self. In that moment, a wolf under a chuppah, surrounded by love, he is what we all aspire to be, unconditionally true to all aspects of himself and his choices and fully embraced for it by those who count.
If you don’t receive our bi-weekly eNewsletter, you may not know that we’re looking ahead to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) in the spring. The last two editions asked for folks who are descendant of Holocaust survivors and have relatives who intermarried. If you are, we’d love to hear your stories — contact Benjamin!
My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor from Germany. My grandmother was raised Mormon in Utah. How they met, fell in love, and eventually married is a story for another time. For now I want to fast forward to the dinner table at my parents’ home last week.
A Holocaust educator, my mother often writes about the Holocaust, modern Germany, and her own life experiences in Indianapolis’ National Jewish Post and Opinion. I thought she would jump at the chance to share one more layer of her story. When I broached the subject with her, her response was (with what sounded like a tone of offense) “I don’t consider myself to have been raised in an interfaith family.” I was surprised that she sounded so offended.
Earlier this week I was in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to visit with my mom’s older sister. I met her at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, where she volunteers twice a month. I perused the museum as she finished her shift and then we went to dinner. Usually we see each other at a family reunion or life cycle event. Finding time for a 1:1 conversation in these settings is next to impossible; this was the first time we had a chance to speak as adults.
I told my aunt about the note in our eNewsletter and she said she’d be interested in writing. I then told her my mom’s response and she replied, “Of course we were an interfaith family!” I was shocked! One sibling considers her family to be interfaith while the other doesn’t.
To break the tie, I emailed my uncle. He responded,”Well, the short answer is that ‘Of course we were an interfaith family.’ Not only did we visit cousins in Utah who were still Mormon (even if not fervent in their practice), but my mother frequently invited the Mormon missionaries, who were working in our home town, over for dinner. I even went to Europe one summer with a group that was mostly Mormon. My mother somehow hooked us up with this group and she served as one of the chaperones. Imagine going to the Moulin Rouge at the age of 15 and sitting at a table with your mother!” (Or, for that matter with a group of Mormon missionaries!)
He continues, “I think I know more about the Mormon religion than most other Christian religions… My Mom was very involved with the Jewish organizations, and we observed all the holidays. I have a theory that when it comes to religion, when people of different faiths marry, those with strong backgrounds tend to find one another, more so than people of the same religion who came from opposite ends of the observance spectrum.”
My grandparents made a lot of great decisions about how they would raise their children, weighing both how much German and Jewish influence, as well as how much American and Mormon influence, would permeate their household. In the end, they raised three fantastic children. I suppose my take-away is that parents have a lot of power. They nurture each child. But eventually it’s the children who decide who they are, how they identify, and what role religion (which religion) has in their lives. How you define yourself is ultimately up to you.
Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.
Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:
We certainly hope we are!
But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.
There’s an interesting editorial piece on welcoming interfaith couples/families. It starts:
Then there’s an opinion column from a rabbi, addressing how synagogues and rabbis might welcome (“embrace”) intermarried couples and their families.
And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.
I am deeply distressed by the publication in Reform Judaism magazine of an article that undermines the Reform movement’s historic approach to welcoming and engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
The article, titled The Disgrace of a Nice Jewish Girl, tells an admittedly sad story of a Jewish woman who divorced her husband who was not Jewish after he had an affair when their first child was 16 months old. Unfortunately, the back story is all about how the woman’s father was opposed to her intermarriage as a “shanda” — something that would bring shame on him, his family, and the Jewish community. She hoped to prove him wrong, but after the divorce, her father still thinks intermarriage is a shanda.
The author says that she doesn’t think intermarriage is a shanda, that “we should welcome non-Jews into our communities,” that “plenty of Jews… cheat on their spouses,” and that “I want to believe that my divorce is not related in any way to the fact that my ex was not Jewish.”
But her conclusion is, “I can’t help but think sometimes, Maybe things would have turned out differently had my husband been Jewish.” And “these days I nonetheless find myself searching again for a ‘nice Jewish boy.’”
The Reform movement pioneered the modern Jewish effort to welcome and engage interfaith families. Under the leadership of Rabbi Alexander Schindler z”l, the movement created an Outreach Department and the movement’s rabbis decided that Jewish identity is based on how a child is raised not just the mother being Jewish. Some Reform synagogues today go out of their way to thank the partners who are not Jewish for their contribution to and participation in Jewish life. Many Reform rabbis officiate at weddings of interfaith couples hoping that doing so increases the chances for a Jewish future for that couple and their family.
This article, despite all of its caveats, sends a completely contrary message to those partners who aren’t Jewish. It suggests, as the author “can’t help thinking,” that intermarriage is the cause of marital unhappiness. Worse, it suggests that the author’s father was right in thinking that intermarriage will cause “the ultimate demise of the Jewish people through assimilation.” I can’t overstate how sad it is to read that message in the official publication of the Union for Reform Judaism.
I recently attended the symposium called “Interfaith Rollercoaster: Navigating the Challenges, Enjoying the Ride,” sponsored by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA and their Interfaith Relationship Dialogue. It was a great opportunity for sharing ideas and solutions for couples and families in our communities.
I attended the workshop “Out of the Mouths of Babes: Young Adults Share Their Experience of Growing Up Interfaith.” The teens on this panel had varying perspectives, but were all raised interfaith and were members at the synagogue hosting the event. It was fascinating to hear about their experiences. One panelist discussed her relationship with her grandparents who aren’t Jewish, including their attitudes toward elements of Judaism. The teen remarked how she enjoyed teaching her grandparents about the various holidays.
At the workshop entitled “Managing Your In-Laws,” the facilitator introduced the concept that managing our in-laws is not really what we need to do — we need to learn to manage ourselves. One suggestion was to manage our own issues by prioritizing them into three baskets: “A,” really important; “B,” negotiable; and “C,” doesn’t really matter. The strategy is to have a small “A” basket and try to put more issues in the “C” basket. I found this to be a great tool to manage all aspects of life beyond the issues raised in an intermarriage or interfaith family.
During discussion groups, it was great to hear how everyone is addressing similar items over the course of their marriage. Many couples go through the same things, but have a varying array of solutions and compromises. What was really gratifying was that many members of the congregation said that the rabbi was always learning new perspectives. The rabbi discussed this with the group, saying that he was often revisiting concepts and frequently revising his opinion. This was very refreshing and encouraging to all attendees.
My favorite story from Anita Diamant, the keynote speaker, was when she told us about a man who was Catholic but celebrates all of the High Holidays with his wife and daughters. He said that he was “Jew-ish.” The symposium was a wonderful model for sharing that would be beneficial for any interfaith community.
To read more about it, check out this article from the Jewish Exponent.
It’s interesting that so many in the Jewish community put an emphasis on Christmas. Specifically, whether or not interfaith families observe Christmas. And the assumption has been that if Christmas is observed, these families couldn’t be raising their kids in a Jewish home. And the focus of these Christmas celebrations has often been the tree.
Two local Jewish community studies (Boston’s from 2005 and New York’s from 2011 (released in 2012)) noted the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees. Both studies also noted the lack of data indicating what a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. Wouldn’t you know it? We’ve been asking just that question in our annual December holiday surveys!
To those of you who took our survey in September-October, thanks!
Read on for more about the results of our 9th annual December holidays survey, interfaith families, and the December dilemma:
Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!
This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.
Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.
Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?
The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:
Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,
I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)
As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.
It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.
And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.
There’s an article in yesterday’s Miami Herald about a father and daughter. But it’s not your typical fluff piece. From a “traditional” Jewish family, they became estranged after she told him she was getting married — and that her husband was not Jewish.
Fast forward, and not only have the reconciled, but they now work together: Debbie as a cantor and her father as a rabbi. They’ve created a congregation with an explicitly welcoming message:
If you’ve just read the post Ari wrote this morning, wondering why more interfaith couples and families aren’t joining synagogues, it might be interesting to compare the two… Is the goal for people to “join,” or is the goal for people to be moved, feel connected to spirituality and religion? It seems this father/daughter duo have taken a different approach — and it’s working.
There is a great deal of concern in the Jewish world about the degree to which interfaith families are engaged or disengaged in Jewish life and community. A headline of the New York Jewish Community Study of 2011, released in June 2012, was that interfaith families generally score low on that study’s index of Jewish engagement, while interfaith families who join synagogues or send their children to Jewish education score comparably to in-married families. Community studies like New York’s, and other available communal research, however, tell us precious little about what factors contribute to interfaith families joining Jewish organizations and expanding their connections to Judaism – or what they experience as barriers to that expanded connection.
Starting in December 2009, Interfaith Family’s annual December Holidays survey and Passover/Easter survey have asked precisely those questions. We’ve just published a report on the responses to those questions. Our surveys are not “scientific” or based on a random sample; the respondents are self-selected and some may have responded to more than one survey. But no one else is asking these questions, and our report sheds what is currently the most available light on these important issues: it summarizes and analyzes close to 700 responses from six consecutive surveys from respondents who were in interfaith relationships, were raising their children as Jews, and were members of a synagogue or Jewish organization.
Interfaith families are attracted, in order of importance, by explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome; inclusive policies on participation by interfaith families; invitations to learn about Judaism and, to a much lesser extent, invitations to convert; the presence of other interfaith families; programming and groups specifically for interfaith couples; and officiation by rabbis at weddings of interfaith couples. Read the full report for the data and many comments to our open-ended questions.
The policy implications of these findings are that Jewish communities that want to increase engagement by local interfaith families need to:
That’s the approach we are taking in our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.
The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, has important findings for all those interested in engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
The study confirms that there is a huge amount of intermarriage, and it is continuing. Between 2006 and 2011, one in three non-Orthodox Jews who married, married someone who was not Jewish (a 33% individual rate of intermarriage); 50% of the non-Orthodox couples formed were intermarried couples (a 50% couples rate of intermarriage) (135).1 Twelve percent of the children (age 0 to 17) in Jewish households — 50,000 children — are in intermarried households (183).
The study reports that 31% of the children of intermarried households are raised Jewish and 11% are raised “Jewish and something else,” while 13% have parents who are undecided and 46% are raised not Jewish (180-81).2 A goal of having more than 50% of intermarried parents raise their children Jewish is reachable — if the undecided parents and the parents raising their children Jewish and something else can be influenced towards more Jewish choices.
The tone of much of the study follows an approach consistently taken in the past by Steven M. Cohen, the study’s principal author, that lumps together all intermarried couples and then highlights their relatively low levels of Jewish engagement when compared to all in-married couples. The policy implications of this approach are that it is not worth making efforts to engage interfaith couples. A different approach, which compares those intermarried couples who are Jewishly engaged with in-married couples, highlights their relatively comparable levels of Jewish engagement; the policy implications of that approach, which is reflected to a degree in the study, are to make efforts to move more intermarried couples to Jewish engagement.
For example, the study reports that the children of intermarried households receive relatively little Jewish education — only 35% are sent to supplemental school; but of the 15% of intermarried households that are synagogue members, 90% send their children to supplemental school. The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to become synagogue members — and the study does say, somewhat reluctantly, “Perhaps expanding congregation-based efforts to engage intermarried households is worth pursuing” (28).
For another example, of intermarried households that are raising their children exclusively Jewish, 54% score high or very high on the study’s index of Jewish engagement (182).3 The policy implication clearly is to try to influence intermarried households to raise their children as Jews — and the study does say that the fact that 13% of intermarried parents are undecided about how they are raising their children “suggest
For another example, the study reports that the intermarried are less engaged because they have fewer Jewish social connections, with 77% of those age 30-39 living fairly isolated from other Jews — but adds, “These patterns suggest one approach: connect the intermarried socially to other Jews” (162).
The study’s authors ask an important question: “To what extent has the Jewish community made progress in closing the engagement gap associated with intermarriage?” Comparing their findings to those of the 2002 community study, they conclude that the intermarried (again lumped all together) became more distant when compared to the in-married (140). Given the negligible communal efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly since 2002, the lack of progress should not be a surprise.
The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”
But a related finding exposes widespread negative attitudes about intermarriage that potentially result in disinviting, unwelcoming behavior: high percentages of parents say they would be upset if their adult child married someone not Jewish who did not convert. While 6% of intermarrieds and 12% of converts would be upset, 56% of non-Orthodox in-married Jews would be upset. Feeling that the fact of their relationship is a cause of upset in a community is a factor likely to discourage a couple from engaging with that community.
Sensing negative communal attitudes may explain why more intermarried households make charitable contributions exclusively to non-Jewish causes, and fewer give to Jewish causes (203-05) — and the study does suggest “experiment[ing] with new ways of connecting with those who seem the most disconnected from communal Jewish philanthropy — [including] intermarried households” (30).
The fact that people go where they feel welcomed is supported by another study finding, namely a significant shift of Conservative Jews to Reform, which clearly has been perceived as the more hospitable movement for the intermarried. Of all Jews raised Conservative, 29% now identify as Reform; of all now Reform, 31% were raised Conservative (124).
The study has a very helpful discussion of the current context of shifting identities. It highlights fluidity, with people freely choosing identities based on relationships; malleability, with identities changing over time; and hybridity, a confluence of multiple traditions that is the ethos in American society generally (111-12) .
One aspect of hybridity briefly mentioned in the study is that in 9 of 10 intermarried households, synagogue affiliated or not, Christmas is celebrated by a household member. The study states that “In about half, it is celebrated as a religious holiday” but provides no explanation of what that means. InterfaithFamily’s eight years of December holiday surveys have consistently reported, in contrast, that high majorities of interfaith families raising their children as Jews celebrate Christmas but not as a religious holiday.
The Jewish Community Study of New York report can be found at ujafedny.org/jewish-community-study-of-new-york-201.
The study may understate the amount and the Jewish engagement of what have commonly been thought of as intermarriages. Five percent of study respondents were people who had no Jewish parent and had not formally converted, but identified as “Jewish by personal choice.” A marriage between a Jew (by birth or formal conversion) and such a Jew by personal choice has up to know been thought of as an intermarriage, but the study appears to count such couples as “conversionary, in-married” — resulting in less intermarriage. Moreover, Jews by personal choice almost by definition would be more Jewishly engaged than non-Jews; if marriages involving Jews by personal choice were counted as intermarriages, that should mean more Jewish engagement by intermarried couples than this study, which treats those couples as in-married, reports.
The study frequently attributes cause and effect to intermarriage while being very cautious about doing so with any other issue. Thus the study concludes that intermarriage — as opposed to other factors such as what the partners bring to the marriage — “strongly influences” whether children are raised as Jews, the Jewish engagement level of the home, and the Jewish educational choices for their children (191). In contrast, for example, on the question whether having fewer Jewish acquaintances causes less engagement, the study says “Of course, the chicken and egg here are difficult to discern. Do people with many Jewish intimates acquire and sustain Jewish engagement, or do Jewishly engaged people form and sustain Jewish friendships and family relationships?”
Many of the study’s findings are organized around an index of Jewish engagement, based on twelve factors selected by the study’s authors (118), and the study frequently refers to intermarried households scoring low on that index — for example, 70% of the intermarried score low on the engagement index (142). The authors acknowledge, however, that indicators that can be undertaken individually or with friends and family, that don’t demand formal affiliation or collective action, are not included in their engagement index (119). As intermarried households are more involved with these indicators that are not included on the study’s index, their Jewish engagement is understated by the index.