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Rabbi Mychal Copeland served as director of IFF/Bay Area until June, 2017 and is the incoming rabbi at Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.
When I met my first girlfriend at 22 years old, I fell head over heels. My mind was swirling for at least a year—processing how this person would change my life, when and how I would tell my parents I might be a lesbian and how her more conservative parents would take the news. But mostly it was swirling from being in love. The last thing on my mind was the fact that she wasn’t Jewish. And that isn’t because I didn’t care about Judaism; in fact, I was on a path to become a rabbi. I knew I would always live a Jewish life and any kids I might have would be raised Jewish as well. On the list of things to fret about, her religious identity was far from the top.
Since then, these overlapping identities have profoundly shaped my work. My two greatest passions are supporting people in interfaith relationships and exploring the intersections between LGBTQI identities and religion. In some ways, they are distinct: The first deals with choice in a modern landscape while the other is usually thought to be a non-choice that pushes against the foundations of many of the world’s religions, including Judaism.
The two converge around the principle of otherness. Because both challenge entrenched religious boundaries, people identifying as interfaith or LGBTQI often feel like the quintessential other. In the 20-some years since that first girlfriend became my life partner, I have found that both realities inform the way I see our relationship and my connection to Judaism. In working with other interfaith LGBTQI couples, it seems that some of my personal revelations are far from unique.
In honor of LGBTQI Pride Month this June, I set out to explore how we can best honor LGBTQI Jews and their partners who aren’t Jewish. What is particular about the cross section of identities when LGBTQI people are in interfaith, interracial or intercultural relationships?
When my partner and I offered our vows to one another, we recalled words from the Book of Ruth. In this biblical story, Ruth, the Moabite, vows to follow the Israelite, Naomi, declaring, “Wherever you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.” Acknowledging that they come from distinct cultural backgrounds, Ruth tells Naomi that they will always be family. This Pride month, let’s celebrate the diversity in our LGBTQI relationships
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.
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:
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.
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.
Thanks to various Jewish ad campaigns and informational events, I know the big, scary Jewish genetics statistic: One in four Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier for at least one of the 19 preventable genetic diseases. But when Dr. Jodi Hoffman of Tufts Medical Center informed me that, “a big misconception is that interfaith couples are not at risk for having children affected with Jewish genetic diseases and therefore do not need to get screened before starting a family,” it was news to me. Unlike my colleague Wendy Armon who wrote an informative article on the subject last year, I had no idea, nor did many of my friends.
Who knew interfaith and interracial couples are not exempt from the need to test for Jewish genetic diseases? (Besides Wendy and Dr. Hoffman, that is.)
Particularly in light of this pervasive ignorance, renowned geneticist and pediatrician Dr. Hoffman has dedicated years to doing outreach to Jewish and interfaith families, working to dispel misconceptions like the one I had. Nationally recognized for her expertise in screening for Jewish genetic diseases, she is currently the Director of the Victor Outreach and Screening Program for Ashkenazi Jews at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. One of U.S. News & World Report’s “Top Doctors” in 2012, Dr. Hoffman is determined to reach as many people as she possibly can.
Shortly after I connected with Dr. Hoffman, Elizabeth Freid Vocke, one of our regular contributors on InterfaithFamily, wrote about the scare her interfaith family endured prior to the birth of their daughter Mirabelle. I asked Dr. Hoffman for her thoughts on Vocke’s article.
In light of common misinformation about proper genetic testing, is the article accurate? Is there anything you believe is particularly important to highlight?
Yes, it is definitely relevant. I think the key points to emphasize are:
What recommendations would you give to interfaith couples?
Get screened and update your screening. A simple blood test will tell you if you are a carrier. There are 3 ways to get screened: 1) Contact your physician or OB/GYN. 2) Schedule an appointment at the Victor Outreach and Screening Program Clinic at Tufts Medical Center. Call (617) 636-7721 to make an appointment. 3) Attend a Victor Center community screening. You can find an upcoming screening and more information at victorcenters.org/.