Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgove’s article in the New York Jewish Week, “Mikveh Can Solve Conversion Problem” and Rabbi Shaul Magid’s article in The Forward “Why Conversion Lite Won’t Fix The Intermarriage Problem.” Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word “problem.”
I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isn’t the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposed—in fact, I often don’t know what the article is going to be called until I see it online or in print. Editors give headlines to articles that they think will attract readers. And so, I presume that it wasn’t Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word “problem” in the headline of either of their articles about interfaith marriage (though in the first sentence of his article Rabbi Magid stated that intermarriage is “arguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewry”). But, the editors of the articles did choose to use the word and I find that disturbing.
For too long, the Jewish community has referred to interfaith marriage as a problem. It implies that the people in those marriages—the Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different background—are also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, we’ve been talking out of both sides of our mouth. On the one hand, we spend our resources (both time and money) trying to figure out how to engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life, and on the other hand, we tell these people that they’re a problem. So, here’s a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, let’s stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.
Throughout the four years that I’ve been working for InterfaithFamily, a national organization whose mission is to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life and to advocate for the inclusion of people in interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, I’ve been especially sensitive to the language that’s used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. I’m constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who aren’t Orthodox. We hear about the “problems” and “challenges” of interfaith relationships and we see classes on “the December Dilemma” and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.
I’m proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesn’t just reflect the way we think; it also shapes the way we think. At InterfaithFamily, we speak about the challenges *and* blessings of being in an interfaith relationship and we offer classes on “the December Dialogue” or “the December Discussion.”
We at InterfaithFamily also advocate for framing discussions about interfaith marriage not as how we can solve a problem, but rather as how we can view interfaith marriage as an opportunity—an opportunity not simply to increase our numbers in the Jewish community, but also for the Jewish community to evolve in a rich and meaningful way, with people who did not grow up Jewish bringing new insights and perspectives as they choose to engage in Jewish life.
I ask the editors of the Jewish press and others in the Jewish community to join us in our effort to reconsider the language being used to discuss interfaith marriage. Please, whether you see interfaith marriage as an opportunity or not, stop calling it a problem. At the very least, why not just name it as what it is, and what it’s sure to remain in the future: reality. Once we accept this reality, and stop referring to it as a problem to be solved, we can surely have a more productive conversation about how to best engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life in a way that’s meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” He wants to “meet people where they are,” and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be “fully observant.”
I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I don’t have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and “doable” will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married “where they are” is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.
We really don’t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage….
If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status – so they leave.
I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.
Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would “level the playing field of Jewish identity” – and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all b’nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.
But these are band-aids that don’t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be “passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.
Rabbi Darren Kleinberg has written a very important essay published in eJewishPhilanthropy this week, Hybrid Judaism: The Transformation of American Jewish Identity. Kleinberg was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in 2005 but describes himself as no longer Orthodox. He writes that identity is not a psychological category that describes who one “is,” but rather a sociological category that describes one’s affiliations, the product of social interactions. As our interactions have become more complex, so does our identity, which he says is best described as “hybrid.”
Given this reality, it is fair to state that the binary distinction between Jew and non-Jew is an increasingly ineffective way to describe those people found in and outside of the American Jewish community.
[W]hat matters is whether people wish to be affiliated with the Jewish community, not how, or to what extent, they choose to identify themselves – after all, affiliation is identity. If we are able to do this, our Jewish communities will grow, even as their constitution will likely undergo significant change.
One practical consequence: Kleinberg recommends that synagogues that are not bound by Jewish law should remove all distinctions among participants so that those who do not self-identify as Jewish but affiliate with the Jewish community through a synagogue (for example, a spouse from a different faith tradition) should have full access to all ritual and leadership opportunities.
This is an essay that is well worth reading.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland, Director of InterfaithFamily/Bay Area, wrote How Reporting Made Me a Better Rabbi for eJewishPhilanthropy also this week. She writes that tracking and recording interactions reflects that every person is important and every encounter can be profound. Keeping track reminds her to follow up, and people are shocked and overwhelmingly grateful that she gave them time and followed up with them.
Many of us profess a commitment to radical hospitality, but are we living it? When I am compiling my reports, I ask myself: Did I go above and beyond what I needed to do to make sure this individual I am “counting” feels embraced? If they were to reflect on our encounter, would they feel they had been respected and seen as a holy being? Did they leave the interaction feeling more connected to Judaism and our community? If they are outside the scope of my organization’s mandate, have I done all I can to connect them elsewhere? Did anyone fall off my radar?
Mychal writes that an “every person counts” mentality is “our best shot as a Jewish community to speak to younger generations yearning for connection and individual attention. In the end, everyone wants to feel like they matter.”
She also writes that InterfaithFamily “strive to be the Jewish organization that says ‘yes’ after people have heard too many ‘no’s.’ That doesn’t mean we don’t have our own boundaries as individual professionals or as an organization. It means that we say ‘yes’ to having a deep interaction regardless of what someone seeks.”
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has passed a resolution to “allow individual congregations to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews.” Some Conservative synagogues were already accepting as members people from different faith traditions, but the practice has now been officially sanctioned. Rabbi Stewart Vogel, treasurer of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbis’ association) and vice chair of USCJ’s Commission on Community and Covenant which considers ways to engage interfaith couples, said “The Rabbinical Assembly believes in the idea that synagogue life should be open to those who wish to be part of the Jewish community and we are enriched by their presence.” The JTA article on the membership change noted,
The Conservative movement prohibits its rabbis from marrying or attending the wedding ceremonies of interfaith couples, though some of its synagogues celebrate intermarriages before they occur and welcome the couples afterward. In recent years, several Conservative rabbis have protested the intermarriage prohibition.
Hoping to convince Lily to agree to the baptism, Katherine [the mother-in-law] invites her minister to explain the details of the ritual. It backfires. “I just sat there growing more and more uncomfortable. Hearing that reverend say ‘Christ’ a million times, I have never felt more Jewish in my life,” Lily tells Toby afterwards.
Even though she isn’t religious, Lily realizes Judaism is an important part of her identity and she wants that for her son as well. “Jews are defined by being other than. Not Christian. For me you’re either Jewish different from the rest of the world and proud of it or you’re not. And I’m Jewish,” she says….
Lily perfectly explains the cultural bond Jews feel towards each other: “We have our own history. Our own language. Our own food. Our own sense of humor. And everyone who is Jewish is bonded by that and I want my son to be in that little circle with me.”
Toby and his parents eventually come to terms with Lily raising Carlton Jewish. but they acknowledge they have a lot of learning to do. Toby says he will be taking some classes in Judaism, and Katherine responds that she will also.
There are of course different patterns of behaviors that interfaith couples follow to resolve issues like how to raise their children with religious traditions. The review makes this couple sound very unambiguous, and the mother-in-law very tolerant. But it sounds worth watching.
The extreme weather conditions and the long dark nights of the winter months can be harsh for many of us. But from Thanksgiving until around Valentine’s Day, it’s also a popular time when couples get engaged. It can also be a time when couples who are getting married in the spring and summertime are knee-deep in wedding planning. Whether you’re dating, engaged, already married, considering or expecting children, winter can be a good time to hunker down, get cozy and talk about your vision for your partnership.
There have been many articles in recent years about questions for interfaith couples to discuss before getting married, like this one. Sometimes, interfaith or intercultural couples have more considerations. For example, if both partners come from very different cultural or religious families there is a lot to learn. If one is religious and the other isn’t, if one has a large family and the other doesn’t, or if one has a very tight knit family and the other doesn’t—any of these things can be an adjustment for both partners. There will need to be negotiation around which side of the family you celebrate which holidays with and about making sure everyone feels included, especially if both are religious, have strong cultural ties or close families. But let me be clear, these discussions are good for all couples. For every couple, there are family dynamics and personalities to navigate.
I often suggest to couples I work with that they create a vision for themselves—a vision for your life together, for the home you want to create, for the family you build together. If you’ve never considered creating a vision before, here are some questions to consider. Each partner should write down their own responses before sharing with the other partner.
Questions to Define Your Interfaith Family Vision:
What are the traditions, cultural/spiritual practices or values that you grew up with that you imagine having on your own, with your family or with your religious community?
What role do you want or hope your partner will play in these traditions with you, your family or your community?
What role do you imagine playing in your partner’s family’s holidays and traditions and in his or her religious practices/community?
What are the new traditions you will do together in your own home or with a community that are co-created?
Once each partner has had a chance to think about these questions for themselves, they should discuss with their partner. If you dread these kinds of big conversations or decision making, make this fun by doing it over your favorite meal or as a special date. Bring openness and curiosity to the process. You may surprise yourself or your partner. Be realistic about what your life looks like now but how it may look different in the future. If you’ve dropped a lot of your religious practices during your dating years but want your child to have a bar or bat mitzvah down the road, think about what that really means—likely getting back into your observance or joining a congregation and providing an education for your kids. If you’re partner has agreed to raise children in a faith different from their own, talk about what entails.
If you find this brings up more issues or your think you might need some help, consider taking the Love and Religion Workshop through InterfaithFamily, doing an Imago Therapy couples workshop or retreat or finding a couples counselor or coach. Any of these resources will give you more tools for your relationship and help in creating your interfaith family vision.
It’s been quiet on the intermarriage front for a while; it feels like most people’s attention is understandably in the political realm these days. But in the past two weeks there has been interesting news and comment on intermarriage in the more traditional, conservative parts of the Jewish community.
When people talk about intermarriage, for example about the 72 percent rate of intermarriage since 2000 among non-Orthodox Jews, the general understanding is that intermarriage isn’t much of a phenomenon in the Orthodox world. A fascinating blog post on intermarriage in the Orthodox world, The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox Community, suggests that that may not be the case. The blog’s creator, Alan Brill, estimates that 7-8 percent of young Modern Orthodox Jews are intermarried, and says that “ordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic,…” He also says “cases of full Orthodox conversion … are now quite common.”
Most of the blog post is a guest post by “Ruvie,” a Modern Orthodox man, writing about his feelings about his son’s marriage to someone who was not Jewish – feelings that aren’t that different from those of many non-Orthodox Jews.
Ruvie says he is aware of five interfaith marriages in the past year and a half among children of his observant Modern Orthodox friends. “All parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt.” “This is something new and growing in the MO community.” He refers to estimates of 5 to 20 percent intermarriage rates in the Orthodox world.
Ruvie complains that there is a taboo about talking about intermarriage that no longer exists in other controversial topics in Orthodoxy, like homosexuality and people abandoning Orthodoxy:
Rabbis are afraid to be publicly associated with this topic. Parents are reluctant to talk to friends, Rabbis, and extended family. They first are embarrassed and in denial then hope and pray it goes away as a phase not wanting to alienate their children – or they fight and alienate their children.
Ruvie describes the reactions of his friends and himself:
On a personal level, for myself and others, there was a certain amount of: shame in being in this situation – didn’t discuss with my closest friends until later, anger at our ourselves (as failures) and our educational system, confusion – how could this have happened and where is my allegiance – son, family, community and Judaism? [A]nd lastly a certain amount of guilt.
It is very clear that Ruvie’s son may have left Modern Orthodoxy but has not left Jewish life. The officiating rabbi recommended that the young woman take an introduction to Judaism course and during the course she decided to undergo a Conservative conversion. Before the wedding the son asked the father to put up a mezuzah at his apartment; after the wedding the son asked his mother where he could ritually immerse their dishes.
It is also very clear that Ruvie prioritizes his relationship with his son:
My son’s happiness and ascent from loneliness is an important factor in the equation. I realize that being supportive leads to possible normalization of interfaith marriage. As a parent the best interest and wellbeing of my child supersedes other considerations that are communal in nature.
Ruvie’s conclusion: “There is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Let’s begin now.”
The Conservative movement currently restricts synagogue membership to Jews. The recent news, described in a JTA article, “Conservative movement proposes allowing non-jews as synagogue members,” is that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the association of Conservative synagogues) is asking the synagogues to vote in March to allow individual synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to those who are not Jewish. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of USCJ, said that “the current standards don’t make sense in a world where many intermarried couples are active participants in Conservative congregations” and that “the language of ‘only Jews can be members of a synagogue’ makes it seem like [someone who is not Jewish] who is connected is not a member of that community.”
Rabbi Wernick also said that the USCJ is not changing the definition of who counts as Jewish: “What we’re trying to do with this is distinguish between community and covenant.” But Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the most outspoken Conservative leader on intermarriage issues, recently created a pamphlet in which he essentially recommends that the Conservative movement adopt patrilineal descent. “The Elephant in the Room: Conservative Judaism and the Patrilineal Question.”
It will be interesting to see movement in the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative parts of the community toward more acceptance and welcoming of interfaith families.
I met Jeremy and Lisa at a coffee shop to plan their upcoming wedding. We had covered most of the usual pre-ceremony topics: communication, values and balancing work and home life. Lisa had a strong Jewish sense of self from her upbringing and was excited that Jeremy, who didn’t follow any particular religious tradition, was more than happy to go along for the ride. Jeremy expressed genuine interest in learning more about Lisa’s traditions.
As we were putting the final touches on the ceremony, he asked an honest and important question: “Do I need to break the glass at our wedding?” Many couples I work with both break a glass or fight over who gets to do it. Performing Jewish rituals with Lisa felt fine to Jeremy, but doing it alone seemed to be making a statement that this tradition was his. The idea of the ritual itself was not the issue, but what it represented.
Jeremy wanted to make sure Lisa understood that he would be a supportive partner in any way he could, but that didn’t mean he would become Jewish by default without actually choosing it. What, exactly, would his role be in raising Jewish children? How far would he need to go to feel he had satisfied what was expected of him? If he were to go to services or host a Shabbat dinner, would it be enough to be present, or would he be expected to pray using Hebrew words? His concern was encapsulated by one grand symbolic gesture of breaking a glass, but the broader concern he was raising was whether he would be required to pretend he is someone he is not. It was a fair question.
Although breaking the glass is the quintessential symbol of a Jewish wedding, it is, in fact, a folk custom. One does not need to close a ceremony with this ritual for the union to be considered Jewish, and they aren’t the only couple I have married to skip this tradition altogether at their Jewish wedding. Indeed, my hope is that couples from different backgrounds will be drawn to the beauty and meaning in such traditions and take part in them because they bring deep value to their ceremony and to their lives.
In voicing his question, Jeremy highlighted how important it is for couples to hear what is emerging for each partner. Partners who aren’t Jewish often report feeling a de facto assumption that they will live a Jewish life going beyond just supporting their family members. We are getting better at welcoming people as “fellow travelers” who do not wish to convert, but we still expect a lot of them.
Partners in interfaith relationships need clarity around their roles. A common phrase in contemporary ketubahs is that each partner pledges to support the other’s traditions. But what does “support” entail? There is no single answer, but the question needs to be asked. Jeremy had the courage and confidence in his relationship to consider the future and what might be asked of him. He didn’t want surprises later and he didn’t want his partner to feel blindsided or disappointed at some future pivotal moment.
If you are in an interfaith relationship and getting married soon, this is the perfect time to ask yourselves some of the hard questions. Learning how to have conversations like this lays the groundwork for other challenges that will come your way. Be honest and clear about what you envision, and be as detailed as you can be about your hopes and plans. For example, if you are Jewish and say you will support your partner’s desire to celebrate Christmas, talk about what that will look like, what will be expected of you and what kinds of traditions are important to your partner. If you are not Jewish and you’re happy to support Jewish holiday traditions or children’s education, talk about what exactly will be asked of you. How would a child be welcomed into the world, if at all? Would you see a religious education in that child’s future? Shabbat dinners? Will you hold each other responsible to ensure certain traditions are present in your lives? In the event of a breakup, would you expect the other to support these decisions?
Don’t leave these issues for later because they feel too difficult or, conversely, because they feel insignificant. This is the time, and we at InterfaithFamily are here to guide you.
In college, I was a Jewish representative on the student Multi-Faith Council. I have always been fascinated by other religious traditions, cultures and belief systems, while feeling strongly rooted and passionate about my own.
Like many in the more liberal branches of religion, I do not believe that Judaism is the one right religion, but rather, that there are multiple ways of living righteously and of reaching God or a higher power.
I picture a large mountain, with many paths up to the summit. Some paths meander by mountain lakes. Others offer wonderful vistas of the valley below. They all have rougher and smoother patches, and some are steeper than others. They all offer opportunities to challenge ourselves and rejoice in the beauty of the world around us. So why pick just one?
For me, I choose the path of Judaism for many reasons. It is the path that my parents and some (not all) of my grandparents walked before me. I have felt a sense of kinship and connection with other Jews who come from all over the world. I love the songs that echo through the hills and the teachings on signposts along the way. And I have found comfort and meaning on this trail at those key moments in my life—after my father died, on my wedding day and in sharing Jewish holidays with my son.
Being in an interfaith marriage adds another layer to this metaphor. I see paths that intersect my own, perhaps merging for a while to diverge and wander off again; maybe looping back on each other at different times. My husband walks his own path, although he does not adhere to another particular religion at this point in his life. (He was raised Protestant and drifted away.) And our paths definitely join together for certain stretches, particularly around holidays that we share as a family, and the core values we want to pass on to our son who we are raising Jewish. But I am walking on a deeply grooved part of the trail, while in this vision he is sometimes on the grassy edge.
Then I think about families who want to incorporate both religions into their homes and family life. Can one path be wide enough to actually overlap with other paths? What do you gain in experience and what might you lose in that image?
I also think about the fellow travelers I have invited to walk with me, my mother-in-law in particular. Even when we are walking together, I expect that her perspective on the view is a little different than mine. Her history is different, and maybe I haven’t done as good a job as I could explaining the different rituals and holidays that we’ll encounter on the way up.
I always love to hear stories from hikers on other trails, and maybe I’ll join them on their path for a while to take in a special sight or moment, but I keep coming back to Judaism. My path is right for me, and I hope my son will find meaning in it, too.
But I like to think about intersecting trails. Interfaith families help form a bridge between paths. We don’t have to shout across the chasms at each other, but can walk together for all or part of the way. This mountain has many sides, and all invite us to look with wonder, appreciation and amazement at the world around us and at the people who share in this journey.
Chelsea and Marc after her mother’s announcement that she will seek nomination for the presidency in 2016. Credit: Andy Katz
Dear Chelsea & Marc,
First I want to say B’sha’ah tovah and mazel tov on your pregnancy. Your pregnancy announcement was adorable and I hope Charlotte adjusts to your pregnancy and the new baby once it arrives. I glanced below the article I read including your announcement and saw several comments from people who, for whatever reason, think they know what’s best for your family. If you haven’t read them yet, don’t. If you have read them, or if you’ve heard them elsewhere—I’m sorry people are treating you as the role model for interfaith families. I’m especially sorry your daughter will grow up hearing these comments and constantly having to explain her family to others.
But the truth is, you are a role model, and your daughter will be one too. No, not because you’re the daughter of a President (or maybe two?). And no, not because you are a public figure. But because you are married to a Jewish man. And you’re not alone in this. All interfaith couples and families become role models and representatives. You see, we Jews have a lot of opinions on how the Jewish people should behave. But the thing is, we all behave differently. We have no one standard of how a “Jewish” family should behave or how an “interfaith” child should act.
I hope that you and your family are able to look past all the judgment and shame that other people might place on you, and enjoy this time. There are many of us rooting for you and following your journey hoping to learn from your experience. Teach your daughter love and kindness and go from there. Being a mom to a toddler and pregnant is already enough to deal with. I hope that the love in your life and family only continues to grow, and that you can continue living the life you want for your daughter and your new addition.
Being a role model for interfaith families can be tough, but creates a groundwork for future families to follow. Let the love you have guide you and you will be supported. In the meantime—know that there are other families navigating this crazy road alongside you and that there are many of us in the Jewish community who welcome you with open arms. InterfaithFamily has loads of baby resources just for you. May your family go from strength to strength in this holiday season.
When I became a rabbi, my own rabbi at home told me that the most important thing I had as a rabbi was my integrity and I’d have little left to offer if I ever let that go. I think about that almost daily and certainly when tough decisions come up. Yet what I find the most difficult about maintaining integrity is not knowing what my boundaries are, what I believe in, stand for and represent but rather how to express and enact all those things. Sometimes it’s easy and the choices are obvious but more often than not, the nuance and shades of gray make integrity anything but easy to maintain. Moreover, while integrity can and should be a constant, it does not preclude evolution of practice, thought and boundaries nor does it give us the right to be judgmental or unkind.
I meet with a wide variety of interfaith couples on a regular basis, whether through a simple email exchange or a series of in-person counseling sessions. By far, the most common story I am told breaks my heart every time. It usually starts with the joy of an engagement and ends with the sting of rejection and judgement, whether from family members, community members or more often than not, clergy.
I have the utmost respect for those rabbis and cantors whose integrity, ideology and sense of purpose precludes them from officiating at interfaith ceremonies. I have seen the struggle amongst my colleagues and the true thoughtfulness with which so many make their decision. But I also see the struggle of so many interfaith couples who are less likely to engage in Judaism not simply because a rabbi said no to marrying them but because of the way in which a rabbi said no.
In an effort to practice what I preach and acknowledge the gray, I of course recognize that there will always be a certain number of couples who will only hear the no, no matter how kindly it is given, and will feel rejected. This is our reality. But I think we can do better for those who come to us, wanting a connection, no matter how tenuous. We owe it to ourselves, to our integrity and to the greater Jewish community, to express first the joy, purpose and possibility of Judaism rather than just the boundaries. We know Judaism has so much to offer: Why else would we want to protect it and cultivate it? Why else would we have spent years learning in order to make it our lives work?
Why not start with words of yes even when we have to say no?
In the face of what we don’t understand, practice kindness.
Toward that which makes us uncomfortable or worried, practice kindness.
To those who make different choices than we do, practice kindness.
I’ve been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs in my life, but I’ve never been so deeply moved as I was on a recent Shabbat.
My cousin, Nancy Sharp, who I’ve always adored, has experienced a life of tragic loss and re-found joy. Her husband, Brett, who I remember vividly as a most wonderful young man, died of brain cancer when their twins, Casey and Rebecca, were 2 1/2 years old. Nancy decided to move from Manhattan to Denver, where she had one friend.
After relocating, Nancy read about Steve Saunders, a local TV journalist, in a magazine article about eligible bachelors; Steve’s wife had died of cancer and he was raising two young teens, Ryan and Dylan. Long story short, Nancy and Steve met, married and combined their families. Nancy has told her story in a remarkable book, Both Sides Now. And this spring, Casey and Rebecca became bar and bat mitzvah.
The service and the celebration were amazing. Brett’s family, though living at a distance, has remained very close to Nancy and her children. Brett’s mother, an aunt and uncle, and many cousins were all present and there were not a few tears when Brett’s mother presented his tallit to Casey at the start of the service. But Steve’s family, who are not Jewish, were very present too; I could see that Casey and Rebecca have acquired a third set of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. The kindness and the love that flowed between Steve and Brett’s family, and Steve’s family and my cousins, was plain for all to see.
I learned that Ryan and Dylan had many Jewish friends growing up, attended Jewish summer camp and one of Steve’s very adorable nephews (who is not Jewish) even attends the pre-school at Temple Micah, where Nancy and Steve are members. So the Saunders family was not unfamiliar with what happens at a bar or bat mitzvah. And Rabbi Adam Morris did an extraordinarily sensitive job of bringing Brett into the service while keeping the focus on the present.
Rebecca and Casey
But what I especially appreciated was how inclusive Rabbi Morris was of Steve and his family. In many Reform synagogues, part of a bar or bat mitzvah service is a symbolic passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to child, but at many, the grandparents and parent who are not Jewish don’t get to participate (on the theory that the Torah is not “theirs” to pass, or perhaps that they couldn’t have passed Judaism to the child). At this b’nei mitzvah, I was very glad to see the Torah passed from my cousins Ron and Sue to Brett’s mother, to Steve’s parents, to Steve and Nancy and then to their children.
As in probably all Reform synagogues, part of the bar or bat mitzvah service involves the parents having an aliyah (saying the blessings before and after a portion of the Torah is read). But as best I know, the vast majority of Reform rabbis will not allow a parent who is not Jewish to join in reciting the Torah blessings at their own child’s bar or bat mitzvah. I believe this is based on theory that the blessing refers to God choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah, and the parent who is not Jewish isn’t part of the “us.” I felt so grateful to Rabbi Morris, and told him so afterwards, for allowing Steve to join with Nancy in the parents’ aliyah. I wish the rabbis who wouldn’t have permitted that could have been at the b’nei mitzvah of Casey and Rebecca Zickerman. Maybe seeing the contribution that Steve, not to mention his extended family, has made to passing Judaism on to Casey and Rebecca might persuade them to change their minds. Something is very wrong, in my opinion, when rabbis can’t consider the family of a person like Steve to be the “us” to whom the Torah was given, making it fully authentic and appropriate for a person like Steve to thank God for giving the Torah to his family—to “us.”
Rabbi Morris’ inclusive approach should not have been a surprise; in 2004 he wrote an excellent sermon explaining why, as it says on the Temple Micah website, “I proudly officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples.” To our knowledge, he is the only congregational rabbi in Denver who will do so.
Nancy Sharp’s story is very personal and emotional for me, and one of, if not the, most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. I love Nancy and her family; the loss she suffered was painful, and the love that she found is a source of great joy. I think the lesson here is about being open to and choosing love. The love that Nancy was open to and chose with Steve, and the love that flows between their families, including Brett’s, is what makes their example so powerful. I hope that the inclusive approach of their rabbi, who chooses to privilege love and family over other concerns, becomes an increasingly powerful example to his colleagues, too.