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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
Alongside the negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.
Naomi Schaefer Riley has an interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the B’nai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says
If there’s one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, it’s the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isn’t Jewish will turn around a few years later and push them to send their children to the synagogue preschool. In my interviews [for her book on interfaith couples], this practice is commonly labeled “hypocritical” by those affected by it.
Riley makes the interesting observation that the Catholic church used to require the non-Catholic spouse to promise to raise children Catholic, but decided it couldn’t in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders “have no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.” Despite that, Riley does think the B’nai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.
In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples – after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding – is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, an excellent article in the Boston Globe about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing interfaith marriages not as a loss – “It’s not a minus one, it’s a plus one.”
Rubel says Honeymoon Israel’s goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but “to empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.” Sixty percent of the couples who take the trip are interfaith, including the author of the article, who writes that a few months after the trip, her group “had settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.” This is very important. It shows what’s possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.
After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children – and there’s positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28 percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith families and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish – for example, 89 percent of interfaith families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67 percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaith families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is “exciting” to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.
One of the report’s conclusions is that “there is room to grow the program among … intermarried families” and that PJ needs to expand efforts to reach more of the less-connected, less-affiliated families. I very much hope that PJ does that. It’s interesting that PJ’s influence is greater within the home; other studies have found that interfaith families are more comfortable engaging in Jewish life at home with their family than in more public, organized settings. The report notes that PJ traditionally has reached families through organized institutions such as synagogues, Federations, or JCC’s; that’s not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than families that are solely Jewish; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.
The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books – with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying “more cultural books… more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazing” – other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying “We value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.” It’s very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith families’ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Library’s efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.
After young interfaith families often come b’nai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post has a very sweet story about two families’ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah – the father’s mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didn’t have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs “to confirm their identity.” The father’s wife/boy’s mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. The other family included a Jewish mother from the FSU, married to a man named Bernstein who had a Jewish father but was raised Catholic; the father says, “I’m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. I’m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.” The son says, “The tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.” One more proof of what’s possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.
That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed in a fascinating episode on interfaith marriage on the BBC radio show “All Things Considered.” The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the U.K., a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50 percent of U.K. Jews are now in interfaith marriages, and that more U.K. Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples – as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas – for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesus’ divinity.
Finally, the new rabbi at Montreal’s Dorshei Emet, reportedly one of the few if not the only Reconstructionist congregations where interfaith weddings are not done, comes with experience officiating for interfaith couples and “makes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.” And Keren McGinity persuasively presents the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.
After 12 years of working and volunteering in L.A.’s Jewish community, I had stepped away. I’d loved all of the places I’d been: The Jewish Federation, Sinai Temple, with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, and Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, but something was always slightly off. Not the work, which was rewarding. Not the people, who were wonderful. It was me. I had a deep, dark secret that was keeping me at arm’s length from the organizations I worked for and the communities I was serving.
In reality, that secret was neither deep nor dark. Everyone knew, but it was always on my mind. I was living in an interfaith household. And it was a topic I avoided. Not because communities weren’t welcoming—many were, but the conversations around interfaith families that I had at work were so vastly different from those I was having at home. It became harder and harder to imagine that the reality of my life, and the lives of many of my peers, was ever going to connect with the Jewish community as I knew it.
So I left. While stepping away was hard, it also felt right. Working outside of the Jewish community was challenging and fun and, most of all, not personal. There were some bumps, of course. It took ages to realize that when someone agreed with me, it was sincere. Without the “buts” and complaints and opposing opinions I couldn’t imagine that “yes” meant yes. And I often found myself calling synagogue board members to catch up on gossip and getting coffee with friends in faith communities just to hear them talk about work. But I felt I couldn’t go back.
Then I heard that InterfaithFamily was opening a “Your Community” in L.A. It was the first time I hesitated in those two Jewish-free work years.
Nah…Well, maybe…Mmm…I mean, I might as well find out what they’re about…Right?
The more I spoke with the staff at IFF, the more I learned about the communities they were already in and the work they do nationally, the more my guard fell. I had no idea that there was an organization that was openly engaging the very issues my family and I had been struggling with alone.
I admit that until I walked into the national office, I remained a bit skeptical. But even someone who doesn’t believe in signs from above couldn’t miss these. My start date coincided with a pre-planned trip to Boston, and while at IFF HQ, every game of Jewish geography bore fruit and every conversation was one I’d had in my head but never had the opportunity to have out loud.
It felt like home on that very first day.
As IFF/LA launches, every day has been amazing. Engaging with the extraordinary and diverse interfaith community here in L.A. and the institutions that welcome them has been inspiring and energizing. I’m working with teen librarians at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on a Passover-Easter family program. With Haggadot.com, we’ll be offering a program on incorporating the traditions of family members who did not grow up Jewish into their seder. For Tu B’Av we’re working on a celebration with Honeymoon Israel.
I’ve met with amazing professionals and families from across the spectrum of Judaism and cannot wait to meet more. Instead of just acknowledging that Judaism has interfaith families, our conversations are about ways we can incorporate and honor them. And for the first time, “them” is me.
It’s almost embarrassing to be this enthusiastic about work. But as IFF/LA grows, I hope that the interfaith families here in the city and the Jewish institutions that welcome them will grow with us.
Contact: Liz Polay-Wettengel, National Director of Marketing and Communications
INTERFAITHFAMILY RECEIVES $250,000 GRANT FROM THE JEWISH COMMUNITY FOUNDATION OF
(Newton, MA)—InterfaithFamily is honored to be the recipient of a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. The grant of $250,000 over three years enables InterfaithFamily to start a new project, InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, to coordinate and provide a range of services and programs aimed at engaging local interfaith families Jewishly.
“We are delighted to support this innovative program connecting families to resources that will enable them to incorporate Jewish traditions and engage in Jewish life,” said Marvin Schotland, President and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation.
“We believe the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative is the single best opportunity we have to engage significant numbers of interfaith families in Jewish life and community,” said Lynda Schwartz, IFF Board Chair. “InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles will be a ‘crown jewel’ in our growing network of local communities working on this most important issue for the Jewish future. We are deeply grateful to the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles for making this possible.”
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