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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.
To those who yearn to belong, practice kindness.
In an article in Ha’aretz, Michael Oren: New book meant to enlist American Jews to fight Iran deal, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US, has launched a PR tour for his new book “Ally,” which according to press reports addresses President Obama’s attitudes and positions towards Israel.
One of Oren’s comments as reported in the Ha’aretz article demands a response:
It’s not clear if Oren’s comment was meant to be limited to particular American Jews in the Obama administration; a Times of Israel article about the same interview has Oren saying that “the non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews don’t fully grasp Israel’s position.” In any case, there is a clear implication that Jews who are intermarried, because they are intermarried, are not supportive of Israel. That’s an offensive notion to which we strongly object.
At InterfaithFamily we don’t take positions on political issues about Israel. But we strongly support Israel’s right to exist in peace, and we strongly encourage interfaith couples and families to travel to Israel, because all experience shows that doing so leads to further Jewish engagement, which is our ultimate goal. That increased Jewish engagement, for interfaith couples who do travel to Israel, can include increased feelings of attachment to and support for Israel – in not only the Jewish partner, but the partner of another background as well. That’s the kind of attitude shift that people who care about Israel should want to have happen.
People who want the American Jewish community to support Israel should be careful what they say about interfaith families, who make up a large and growing segment of our community. Suggesting that intermarried Jews are not supportive of Israel is likely to be discouraging and off-putting to them and hardly conducive to strengthening their support for Israel. It’s especially disappointing for that kind of comment to come from Ambassador Oren, who was raised in the United States and spent years here as Israel’s ambassador. Let’s hope he clarifies what he said or meant to say.
Today was a very big day for everyone who wants to see interfaith families engage in Jewish life and community.
As we previously covered in a post in January and another in April, the Genesis Prize Fund had announced that it was awarding its $1 million annual prize to Michael Douglas in order to emphasize the importance of welcoming interfaith families.
According to JTA,
The Genesis Prize Fund and the Jewish Funders Network simultaneously announced a $1.65 million matching grant fund for organizations and projects that support and enhance avenues to Jewish engagement for intermarried couples and their families. The goals of the matching grant are:
We are thrilled for our friends at Hillel and for the opportunity that this very significant funding provides to InterfaithFamily and other organizations in our field. Two years ago, in an essay in eJewishPhilanthropy, I asked whether interfaith families were even included in what was then a growing movement towards “inclusive Jewish philanthropy.” The Genesis Prize Fund, by selecting Michael Douglas as its 2015 recipient, joined now by the Jewish Funders Network, has turned that corner. InterfaithFamily has been operating for fourteen years; now we are finally seeing significant philanthropic resources that will be devoted to what we believe is the most pressing opportunity the Jewish community has to grow and be enriched. This is truly a wonderful day.
And we hope that this philanthropic turn will lead many more leaders in the Jewish community to agree with Mikhail Fridman, a founder of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, who said in his comments at the award ceremony:
There are many in the Jewish community, including Steven M. Cohen in his recent response in The Forward’s Seesaw column, who put forward a two-pronged approach to sustain the American Jewish community in light of the high rate of intermarriage. First, they encourage in-marriage. But when that fails, they encourage interfaith families to engage Jewishly and raise their children within the Jewish community.
But just listen to that language – when in-marriage “fails.” Those are my words, but it is certainly the message I received from many in the Jewish community. Those who take this two-pronged approach are in essence saying that interfaith marriage is second best, so it is not a far leap for interfaith families to feel like second class citizens. That is not a good starting point if you want interfaith families to engage Jewishly.
Would we feel comfortable telling our children to only marry within their race? Or within their socio-economic class? Of course, religion is not exactly the same as race or class. It also makes a difference if you are in the minority or the privileged position. But it is worth asking ourselves how these questions make us feel.
I understand where many Jews are coming from in wanting to preserve a minority population. But what is it we are really trying to preserve? For me, I want to perpetuate Jewish practice, history, belief, thought, food, culture, and community. There are so many treasured memories I look back on from my childhood and want to pass on to my son. Because all of these elements of Judaism have beautiful things to offer the world and the individuals who hold them dear.
So let’s focus on that. Instead of encouraging in-marriage, let’s encourage young adults to find a life partner who shares their values and who will help them celebrate and live their Jewishness. Someone who is open to sharing in and contributing to the life of the Jewish community whether or not that person is Jewish themselves. That is what I found in my husband who actively helps me build a Jewish home, but who is not Jewish himself.
From that starting point, it is easy to move to step two of encouraging interfaith families to engage Jewishly. In fact, from this starting point, we can be sharing the same message with all new families and welcoming everyone on even footing.
Today on eJewishPhilanthropy, Allison McMillan wrote an important piece, “Intermarried, Not Interfaith.” Her husband was an atheist when they met, had no religious connection to any holidays, is exploring Jewish traditions quite extensively, and has decided not to convert, in her words, “at least not right now.” She says their biggest issue is that they are labeled an “interfaith couple,” a term which “does not describe who or what we are. We are not trying to join two faiths together in our relationship. He is not halachically Jewish but he is also not anything else.”
I posted a response that I’d like to expand on here. For us at InterfaithFamily, the term “interfaith” does not connote anything about religious practice. It does not mean a couple that is practicing two faiths or trying to join two faiths together, or a couple where one partner is practicing one faith and the other is practicing no faith. It doesn’t mean a couple that is raising children “both” or in two faiths. “Interfaith” in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background, and one comes from another faith tradition or background. In the context of a family it simply means a family that includes one or more Jews and one or more people from different faith traditions.
We think that the term “interfaith” has become what in the legal field would be called a “term of art,” meaning a word that has an acquired meaning that may not be clear from the term itself. We think that most people coming from the Jewish world understand the term “interfaith” the way we do. And we hope that people like Allison could come to understand the term in that way, and not be bothered or offended by it.
Allison writes that there are “plenty of different phrases that can and should be used in place of interfaith,” but doesn’t say what phrase she would prefer. Over the past fourteen years I’ve heard many unsatisfactory suggestions. “Intermarried” doesn’t work because not everyone is, or, sadly, can be married. “Mixed” as in “mixed-married” or “mixed-faith” is old fashioned, “mixed” has a negative tone, and it’s not more clear or precise than “interfaith.” “Intercultural” or “inter-heritaged” (if that’s even a term) doesn’t work because Judaism is or certainly can be more than a culture or a heritage. No term is perfect to describe couples and families with members that come from Jewish background and another faith tradition – and we say that no term is better to describe such couples and families than “interfaith.”
Allison writes in her article that her and her husband’s situation is not black and white, and we certainly agree with her that there are “many shades of gray.” But as we use the term, “interfaith family” is very inclusive, of both immediate and extended families – interfaith couples where one person comes from a Jewish background and one come from another background, couples that include converts to Judaism who still have relatives who are not Jewish, people with one Jewish parent, parents of intermarried children, grandparents of children being raised by intermarried parents, etc.
Interfaith families may include those who identify their family as Jewish, as more than one religion, or who are unsure of how they identify. Our organization’s goal – which we are working to make the goal of many more Jews and Jewish organizations – is to meet these families where they are and facilitate deeper connection to Jewish life. Hopefully we can live with the limitations of terminology and all work toward that important goal.
In March Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, explaining “Why I Will Not Simply Accept Intermarriage,” wrote for the Forward that “Celebrating interfaith weddings… [would] diminish a sacred covenantal tradition, and risk making liberal Judaism into a jumble of traditional gestures that might please individuals but demand nothing from them.” I wrote a letter to the editor which appeared in the March 20 print issue of the Forward (it’s not on the Forward’s website):
Today another Conservative rabbi, Michael Knopf from Temple Beth-El in Richmond VA, had a very important response published in Ha’aretz, “Getting over intermarriage: Judaism’s guide to finding the right partner.” Rabbi Knopf says that “Jewish leaders’ obsession with discussing intermarriage through the prism of permissibility risks trivializing Judaism as a religion of policies, rather than as a fountain of relevant and enduring wisdom and values.” Stating that Jewish tradition has much wisdom to offer about finding a partner that is just as relevant to those who intermarry, he says “What if, instead of trying to finger-wag Jews into endogamous relationships, we offered compassionate and nonjudgmental support to people, drawing from the riches of our tradition, as they seek to couple?” Among his many refreshing comments are, “Judaism teaches that marrying Jewish is not a guarantee of a successful relationship” and “people of different backgrounds can be oriented to faith in harmonious ways” and “two people of different backgrounds can sharpen each other in myriad ways.” Rabbi Knopf concludes,
We applaud Rabbi Knopf’s novel approach and the welcoming attitude he expresses. But what happens when interfaith couples are brought closer to Judaism, specifically to Conservative synagogues? In March, Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington, MA, wrote a blot post for The Times of Israel describing a New Conservative/Masorti ceremony for interfaith couples, which is described in greater length on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly (the association of Conservative rabbis).
Rabbi Lerner was a co-chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Commission on Keruv (Outreach), Conversion, and Jewish Peoplehood and he concentrated on creating a ceremony to welcome interfaith couples, “a ritual through which a couple could celebrate their love and the Jewish choices they were making, while including family and friends… within our understanding of halakhah (Jewish law).” The core of the Hanukkat Habayit ceremony is putting up a mezuzah; the ceremony is described at length in the blog post and on the RA website and it does appear to offer a lovely and meaningful ritual and celebrate the Jewish choices the couple has made. It also comes with a three- to six-month learning period with the rabbi before the ceremony and continuing conversations with the rabbi afterwards, all aimed as supporting the couple’s Jewish growth.
We applaud this effort to support and recognize interfaith couples who make Jewish choices in a Conservative context, but it’s important to note that very clear Jewish choices are required for the ceremony: It is “for interfaith couples who have decided to build an exclusively Jewish home and family together;” “if the mother is not Jewish, the children would undergo a halakhic conversion;” “There should also be the clear expectation that non-Jewish symbols and observances would not be a part of the couple’s home, such as a Christmas tree.” Many interfaith couples who might want to make Jewish choices in a Conservative context may note be quite as far along in terms of their decision making as is required for the ceremony. And there is continuing tension with those coming from the perspective of tradition – as Rabbi Lerner says, “some” in the movement may be uncomfortable with the ceremony, even with its requirements, “as we seek to straddle the space between our tradition and keruv.”
This will surely be a continuing discussion worth following.
Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Joy Levitt have written an extremely important op-ed for JTA: “If You Marry a Jew, You’re One of Us.” For the past 14 years, we at InterfaithFamily have been advocating for Jews to welcome, embrace and fully include interfaith couples and families into Jewish life and community. We have always maintained that the attitudes Jews have toward intermarriage need to change from negative or ambivalent, to seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.
It is wonderfully affirming to now hear Jewish leaders like Levitt, the brilliantly successful director of the JCC in Manhattan, and Cohen – until recently one of the most vociferous critics of intermarriage – espouse the same views.
The crux of their essay (I am quoting what I feel are the most important points):
We know that where both parents identify as Jews, nearly all their children identify as Jews as well. And when only one parent sees himself/herself as Jewish, only a minority of their children grow up as Jews. Aside from raising the inmarriage rate, how can we create more households where both partners see themselves as part of the Jewish people?
One answer is for all of us to change the way we think of, and treat, those who love and marry our children, family members and friends. Basically we should agree and fully internalize the idea: If you marry a Jew, you’re fully part of our community until proven otherwise.
Born Jews would undergo a subtle but critical shift in the way they relate to family members and friends not born Jewish. It would mean fully including them in holiday practices, life-cycle ceremonies, and Jewishly centered social action and political activities.
[F]or those who choose to be part of our community without formal conversion — who come to the Passover seder and drive their children to Hebrew school, who sit shiva with us, or who bring their sons into the community at a
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
I remember the day I introduced our kids to The Prince of Egypt. I loved this movie, and I was excited to be sharing it with them. Then my partner entered the living room: “How can we teach our kids these stories?!” The slavery, the plagues, and worse, God as a killer of babies. Suddenly, I felt the need to defend Passover, the Exodus story and Judaism as a whole. I know the Exodus is a tough story, but I also felt passionately about it.
It was not the first time my partner, who did not grow up Jewish, has challenged Judaism in this way to me. It began many years ago, before having children, at a Shabbat service. We were nearing the end of the liturgy, singing the “Aleynu” prayer. She nudged me, whispering, “Do you know what you’re saying?” Startled out of my rote recital, I looked at the page. “You [God] have not created us like them, you have not made our lot like the families of the earth.”
Eek! Honestly, I had never read the English, and didn’t know enough Hebrew back then to have parsed it out myself. I had grown up with translations of this prayer that lessened the “chosenness” aspect. I didn’t know what to say. So I stopped saying it. Not based solely on the Aleynu, I ended up choosing to become a rabbi through the Reconstructionist movement which deletes notions of chosenness from the liturgy.
It was a great example of someone with fresh eyes pushing me to think more deeply and critically at my own tradition. I had to resist a knee-jerk reaction and listen. This kind of dialogue, I believe, is an interfaith relationship at its best. Since then, my partner has pointed out countless issues to me, shaking me out of my complicity to call out where Judaism needs to evolve and transform.
But it also raises the issue: Who gets to criticize? It’s a common interfaith scenario: An issue comes up around a holiday, or a rabbi or pastor says something during services that rubs someone the wrong way. Suddenly, one partner feels responsible for defending an entire tradition spanning thousands of years. But something else happens as well. Often, the “defender” gets worried. What if my partner is so angry about this that we can’t have this tradition alive in our home?
The truth is that every one of us has gripes with our own religion. And in Judaism, criticizing from within is built into this tradition that loves to hold many opinions as equally valid. But something different happens when a person of another faith criticizes your own, and when that person is your partner, different dynamics can arise. Perhaps at another point in your life, such a critique may have been the entrée into an interesting interfaith dialogue about why a tradition does this or that. But in this moment it can feel threatening.
Interfaith couples keep a lot of our religious or cultural issues swept nicely under the carpet. We fear that if we really explore what we want our lives to look like, or what we really believe or don’t believe, we could threaten our relationship. So we tuck issues away because it seems to go just fine if we do. That is, until they come up again. And they always do.
I would like to offer some tips for getting through “critique” moments:
1. Everyone picks at the little things. Get past the “Oh no, he is going to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater!” mentality. Discuss long range, overarching plans for spirituality and religion in your home. Then you will be freed up to discuss the details of how those broad decisions will play out in your everyday lives. The little things can be merely interesting, philosophical conversations instead of “make it or break it” moments.
2. Use those critiques as opportunities to learn together. What does Jewish tradition say about that ritual? Was it always observed in that way? Do other movements in Judaism see it differently, and is there flexibility in how the practicing partner executes it?
3. Take a deep breath. If you do feel the need to defend a ritual, a piece of liturgy or a theological stance, ask yourself why you feel aligned with it. Is it nostalgic? A deeply held belief? Or because “that is the way it has always been?” Do you feel the need to present a “perfect” version of your tradition to your partner? What is coming up for you?
4. Judaism holds that all Jews were standing at Mount Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God according to the Book of Exodus). That means that everyone heard the revelation of the tradition, and everyone has equal allowance to interpret it for themselves. But there was also an “erev rav”—a mixed multitude of fellow travelers who left with the Israelites from Egypt. They heard it as well and, therefore, get to weigh in on this evolving tradition. That means that by bringing a partner into a Jewish life who isn’t Jewish, she or he gets to have a say. Listen carefully to each other’s critiques—there is often great wisdom and insight when someone is coming from another perspective.
In Downton Abbey, Lord Sinderby is the disapproving Jewish father who opposes his son’s interfaith marriage to Rose. In Lord Sinderby’s time, there were virtually no opportunities for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life, unless Rose were to convert.
Fortunately, we don’t live in that time anymore. Today, many interfaith families can live active Jewish lives – and many do. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements consider children to be Jewish if there is one Jewish parent (regardless of whether it is the mother or father) and they are raised as Jews. They can be married by a rabbi and join a synagogue.
While Jane Eisner defends Lord Sinderby (“Defending Lord Sinderby,” The Forward, March 1, 2015), I cannot. Too many Jewish professionals and communities still think that Jews are “throwing it all away”, to paraphrase Lord Sinderby’s words, when they marry someone who isn’t Jewish. With a different approach, however, we can see interfaith relationships as an opportunity to invite more people in to the Jewish community. Rose, although naïve, is already eager to learn about the faith. And wouldn’t it be beneficial to have Lord Grantham as an ally?
I do agree with Eisner on a few points, though. We do need to ask the difficult questions, not only of interfaith families, but also of Jewish institutions. If we want to ask the spouse who wasn’t raised Jewish “to commit to doing her part to carry on a precious tradition,” as Eisner says, then can’t we ask Jewish institutions to welcome them and provide opportunities for learning and community?
What would happen if we shifted the focus from who someone marries to helping all families – interfaith and in-married – find their place in the Jewish community? I bet we would see a myriad of beautiful Jewish traditions being passed on to the next generation. That points to a bright Jewish future indeed.
InterfaithFamily CEO Ed Case contributed an important article, “What We Know About Intermarried Families” for the Fall 2014 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service which is disseminated with the permission of JPRO Network, publishers of the Journal. Case discusses the answers that aren’t being discussed from the 2013 Pew report and his reaction, as well as how to respond as a community to the issues that are raised. We’re pleased to be able to share this essay here.