Who Gets to Criticize Your Religion?

Book, heart

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.

No Defense for Lord Sinderby

The Sinderbys

Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE

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.

Ed Case Sheds Light on Intermarried Families

Journal cover

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.

Is Michael Douglas The New Face of Judaism?

Michael Douglas

Michael Douglas & Catherine Zeta-Jones

Michael Douglas & Catherine Zeta-Jones

Have we reached a tipping point on the issue of intermarriage? And is Michael Douglas the new face of Judaism? Douglas, who comes from an interfaith family, identifies with Judaism and is intermarried to Catherine Zeta-Jones, was just honored with the second annual Genesis Prize. As reported in The Jewish Week, “Genesis was founded by and is largely supported by wealthy Russian-speaking Jews committed to sustaining and deepening Jewish identity among young people.”

The Genesis Prize Foundation told The Jewish Week that they had a goal this year to “emphasize ‘inclusiveness of Jews of intermarriage’ within Jewish life.”

We applaud the foundation for focusing their efforts on what Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the Foundation calls “a growing reality, which must be addressed.”

He goes on to say, “The Genesis Prize Foundation is proud to honor Michael Douglas, both for his professional achievements and for his passion for his Jewish heritage and the Jewish state.” Last June, Douglas celebrated the bar mitzvah of his son, Dylan, in Jerusalem and got so into the Hora that he left with a limp. “The Douglas family’s experience of connecting with its heritage and embracing it on their own terms embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds,” said Polovets. “This is particularly important today,” he noted, “when the question of what it means to be Jewish has become more pressing than ever.”

Read the whole story here.

Cameron Diaz & Benji Madden: Interfaith?

Cameron Diaz

Update: As suspected, Benji Madden has Jewish ancestry and it is likely this couple had a Jewish wedding for a reason.

If you’ve seen the news buzzing about Cameron Diaz and Benji Madden’s quick, surprise Jewish wedding, you might be wondering: Are one of these people Jewish? It seems pretty strange to have a Jewish wedding, complete with breaking the glass, a yichud (a ritual where the bride and groom take time alone immediately following the ceremony) and other religious traditions if neither Diaz nor Madden practice Judaism or have Jewish relatives.

Which is why I am of the opinion that there is some meaning behind these ceremonial customs. Wouldn’t it seem a bit disrespectful to incorporate a religion that has no personal meaning to you into your wedding day of all days? I wouldn’t put it past Hollywood, but I have a feeling a rational explanation will eventually come out. Or at least I hope so.

What do you think? Did the couple have a Jewish wedding just for kicks or do they come from diverse religious backgrounds and chose to connect with Judaism?

Shifts in the Conservative Movement

There was an important JTA article yesterday about a prominent Conservative rabbi who reportedly floated the idea of officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – something Conservative rabbis are prohibited from doing by their association, the Rabbinical Assembly – and then reportedly reversed course.

Since InterfaithFamily started operating thirteen years ago, we have always taken the position that Jewish clergy officiating at weddings of interfaith couples is a potential “door opener” to future Jewish engagement by the couple, while refusals to officiate or difficulties finding an officiant are potential “door closers.” We have always tried to be respectful of rabbis who chose not to officiate, while encouraging some rabbis in all communities to officiate in order to minimize the “door closing” effect.

Since InterfaithFamily got started we also have consistently tried to be helpful to the Conservative movement in its response to interfaith couples. Back in 2009 I wrote about how we were trying to recruit Conservative synagogues and professionals to list on our Network and thereby indicate that they welcomed interfaith families, and that we always publicized the Keruv initiative of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. At the time, we applauded a softening of the movement’s previous approach to aggressively promote conversion. In early 2013 we wrote about a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York who proposed a “fast track” conversion, in which a person who was not Jewish would convert first, and then study later, in order to enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at that person’s wedding.

Many observers have said that the Conservative movement has lost many members because the Reform movement is perceived to be more welcoming to interfaith couples. Promoting conversion – which appeared to be getting renewed emphasis just this past summer from Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary – continues to be a potential obstacle to a more welcoming stance. The inability of Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples is another obstacle.

A year or two ago, a highly-regarded Conservative rabbi told me that within five to ten years, Conservative rabbis would be officiating. I know another highly-regarded Conservative rabbi who is trying to figure out a way to be involved with interfaith couples along with another rabbi who would ultimately officiate at the wedding. And on Yom Kippur this year, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Conservative rabbi who had served as assistant dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivered a sermon in which she revealed that she would officiate at intermarriages and had resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly.

According to yesterday’s JTA article, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the country, had sent an email to congregants seeking support for a policy that would enable him to officiate at interfaith weddings where the couple had committed to a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Apparently there were significant reservations about the proposed “Covenant,” so the proposed policy was withdrawn, although Rabbi Gardenwartz said the congregation would “explore ways to be more welcoming to interfaith families both before and after the wedding.”

I agree with Rabbi Chuck Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s clubs who is quoted in the JTA article as describing “the move by someone of Gardenswartz’s stature to review policy on interfaith unions” as a potential “game changer for the movement” and “the beginning of a huge paradigm shift.” Although the head of the Rabbinical Assembly is quoted in the article as saying “we don’t see the performance of intermarriage as something rabbis can do,” we expect that as more and more Conservative leaders see officiation as a potential “door opener” and their existing policy as a potential “door closer,” we will see more moves like Rabbi Gardenswartz’s toward a change in that approach.

The Ever-Renewing People

Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, and Jason Edelstein published a very important essay today in Mosaic. The title is The Ever-Renewing People and the sub-heading aptly summarizes the essay: “Jewish life in America is actually flourishing, thanks in part to the energy of children of intermarriage.” It’s a response to another hand-wringing condemnation of intermarriage from Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen published a few weeks ago

In a nutshell, where Wertheimer and Cohen cite a decades-ago sociologist who when asked what the grandchildren of intermarried Jews should be called responded “Christian,” Edelsberg and Edelstein dismiss that notion as neither apt nor helpful. They note that thousands of young Jews – up to half of whom would be dismissed by Wertheimer and Cohen as “Christian” – attend Jewish summer camps, Jewish teen programs, Hillel and Moishe House. They put Wertheimer and Cohen’s pessimism in its place:

In the end, Wertheimer and Cohen’s depiction of [American Jewish] life as in need of being pulled back “from the brink” is another caricature of Jews as (in the phrase of the late Simon Rawidowicz) an “ever-dying people.” This belies our extraordinary history as a people and an ever-renewing faith tradition that, time and again, have demonstrated an ability to evolve and adapt, thereby avoiding the cliff that Wertheimer and Cohen have artificially constructed.

Every piece of research that has asked people in interfaith relationships why they are or are not engaged Jewishly cites numerous instances of interfaith couples feeling judged, or they or their children evaluated as “less Jewish.” Interfaith families still experience or perceive negative attitudes about their marriage choices from Jews and Jewish leaders – attitudes that are fueled by essays like Wertheimer and Cohen’s. That’s why the optimistic view of the future, on the part of one of the Jewish community’s most important philanthropists, is so important. That view supports increased efforts to engage even more interfaith families and children of interfaith families in Jewish life and community – to insure, in Edelsberg and Edelstein’s words, that diverse Jews “will continue to invigorate contemporary Judaism and invent new ways to experience American Jewish life.”

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Birthright Israel and Intermarriage

[This piece, by Edmund Case and Jodi Bromberg, was published in eJewishPhilathropy on September 11, 2014.]

Taglit-Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed and implemented to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews. A just-released study confirms many positive impacts of Birthright Israel on marriage and family choices.

At InterfaithFamily we greatly appreciate that participation in Birthright Israel is open to young adult Jews whose parents are intermarried; the new study says that 17% of participants from 2001 to 2006 have one Jewish parent and that recent trip cohorts include a larger proportion of those individuals. We have published several articles by trip participants about their very positive trip experiences and hope they have had some effect in alleviating any concerns children of intermarried parents might have about whether they will be truly welcomed. Our staff have participated in training Birthright Israel tour operators to be sensitive to participants whose parents are intermarried and have advised Birthright Israel staff on sensitive questions to determine trip eligibility. We seek to promote Birthright Israel Next activities where we have local staff in our InterfaithFamily/Your Communities – currently Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston, and coming in the fall of 2014 in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

We support Birthright Israel because it strengthens Jewish engagement among young Jews and in particular young Jews whose parents are intermarried. A 2009 evaluation study found that 52% of trip participants who were intermarried viewed raising children as Jews as very important, almost twice as many as 27% of non-participants. The new study again reports higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants having that view. The new study reports that the group of intermarried trip participants who have children at this time is too small to assess the impact of Birthright Israel on actual child raising; the authors do say it is possible that an impact will surface in the future, and that is what we fully expect to see. Higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants also have a special meal on Shabbat, attend religious services, and are otherwise engaged Jewishly.

The new study focuses on marriage choices and highlights that trip participants are more likely (72%) to marry other Jews than non-participants (55%). It finds that the impact of participation on marriage choices of participants whose parents are intermarried is “particularly striking;” for them, the likelihood of in-marriage is 55%, compared to 22% of non-participants whose parents are intermarried.

At InterfaithFamily we think it is wonderful when a young adult Jew falls in love and partners with or marries another Jew. That more participants on Birthright Israel trips marry Jews, and more participants whose parents are intermarried marry Jews, are very positive results. We also think Jewish communities need to genuinely welcome all newly-formed families, whether both partners are Jewish or not. Offering a sincere “mazel tov” is the first of many needed steps that can contribute to interfaith couples deciding to engage in Jewish life and community.

We don’t doubt the study’s conclusion that Birthright Israel has “the potential to alter broad demographic patterns of the American Jewish community” and change trends of in-marriage, intermarriage and raising Jewish children. We also don’t doubt that significant numbers and percentages of young adult Jews – whether they have the great good fortune to participate on a Birthright Israel trip or not – will continue to intermarry. In the new study, of all trip participants who are married, 28% are intermarried. Of participants who are married whose parents are intermarried, 45% are intermarried. The study’s authors note that some evidence suggests that the magnitude of the marriage choice effects may moderate over time – the likelihood of in-marriage decreases for participants as their age at marriage increases, and participants tend to marry later.

Further, large numbers of young adult Jews have not participated and sadly will not participate on a Birthright Israel trip. A large number of young adult Jews have already aged out of eligibility. It would be truly wonderful if resources could be raised and more young Jews attracted to participate on Birthright Israel trips, so that the annual number of participants would represent more than the current one-third of the eligible age cohort. Even if half or two thirds of those eligible could participate, a significant percentage still would not. At the study’s current rates, close to half of non-participants will intermarry.

The study’s authors note that discussion of the Pew Report “has, for the most part, ignored the contribution of improved and expanded Jewish education programs … to both the current contours of American Jewry and to its future trajectory.” The authors are referring in particular to Israel education programs, but they clearly believe that Jewish education programs work. At InterfaithFamily we believe it is imperative to offer Jewish education programs designed for and marketed explicitly to interfaith families – whether they participated in a Birthright Israel trip or not – like those offered as part of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative. The study includes numerous quotes from its survey respondents about their memorable Jewish experiences including Shabbat and holidays; our Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family class elicits multiple examples of the same kinds of comments. The study also notes that intermarried survey participants who had a sole Jewish officiant at their wedding were far more likely to be raising their children Jewish than those who had another type of officiation at their weddings; that’s why our personalized officiation referral service is so important.

Again, Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews, and we wish it great continued success, especially in attracting and strengthening Jewish engagement among young Jews with intermarried parents. Services and programs designed explicitly for interfaith families are badly needed too, and can work together with and in mutual support of Israel engagement programs, all with a goal of greater engagement in Jewish life and community.

Join in Our New Mentoring Program

Two couples having a discussion

Over the three years since InterfaithFamily/Chicago began, many brides and grooms have asked me to connect them with another couple in a similar religious situation to see how they have successfully navigated their relationship. Many times a Catholic woman marrying a Jewish man has wanted to speak to someone else who can understand how her mother and grandmother feel about the faith, upbringing and baptism, specifically, of a theoretical baby one day.

No matter what wisdom I can share from how other couples have worked out interfaith issues, there is nothing like speaking one-on-one with someone who has actually been there. We have done our best to connect couples over the years and have heard back about how helpful those matches have been.

Because we have seen what an organic need this is, we are thrilled that we received a JUF Breakthrough Fund grant to launch a comprehensive and supported new, innovative Mentoring Program for interfaith couples and families.

We are just beginning the program. If you are an interfaith couple seriously dating, engaged or married or an interfaith family with young children who would like to be paired with another couple or family who shares a similar religious story and lives near you, we would be so happy to make a match for you.

The mentors will be available to you through email, phone and in-person to talk through how they handle holidays and extended family, how they made religious decisions, how their kids have felt about their family’s decisions and all the other questions that can come up for interfaith families. The mentors will also invite their mentees to their home between December and May. You may be able to get together in-person (depending on your schedules) for certain holidays or at least to see how the other couple observes a Sabbath and brings peace, time for reflection and revitalization to their lives.

We will stay in touch with everybody and make sure the matches have been successful and that participants are benefitting from their new relationships. This is really a shehecheyanu moment for us at InterfaithFamily (the prayer of joy and gratitude that is said upon doing something for the first time). In the middle of this hard-to-pronounce Hebrew word is the word “chai” (life). This is a prayer about celebrating the joys of life. We have wanted to pair couples with one another in an organized program for some time and we are so proud and happy that the time has come.

InterfaithFamily/Chicago just offered a book talk on David Wolpe’s book Teaching Your Children about God. In the book, Wolpe makes a couple of observations. He writes that we often sense God or something bigger than ourselves in beginnings. This is why when something new starts, we sometimes feel an urge to mark that with prayer or a ritual. He also explains that it is through God’s presence that we can truly see each other. I pray that as we start this new program that it draws people closer to one another and to sacred purpose, hope and inspiration.

If you would like to be paired with a mentor couple or you would like to serve as a mentor couple, please email Judy Jury at judyj@interfaithfamily.com. Judy is the Jewish educator who will be directing this new program. The mentors will participate in a training program on Sunday, November 9 at the Weinger Northbrook JCC to consciously articulate and think about their religious journeys and how they can best support a couple just starting out. At that meeting, the mentors will receive the contact information for who they will be working with. Mentees can be expected to be contacted by their mentors soon after that date.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Amidst Fighting…Intermarried Jews and Muslims Express Their Hopes for Peace

Do you need a little lift amidst the conflict in the Middle East? A growing movement of Tweeters are telling the world that “JewsandArabsRefuseToBeEnemies.” Documented in the article, “Under Muslim-Jewish Hashtag, Sharing a Message of People Over Politics” by Maayan Jaffe, the campaign was started by two college students from Hunter College in New York.

Hashtag Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies

Syrian Dania Darwish and Israeli Abraham Gutman began a trend when they posted photos of themselves with the hashtag written in Hebrew and Arabic. The campaign is bringing out scores of people who are friends, romantic partners or spouses across these two religious lines. Assumed to be the mix of traditions that cannot possibly be joined, many of these pairs are the children of intermarried Muslims and Jews or intermarried themselves.

The stories they are collecting challenge the notion that interdating and intermarriage threaten those established traditions. One Jewish partner in a Jewish-Muslim relationship, Matt Martin, commented that, “A product of the media mainly, it seems you always have to marginalize people, paint someone as the bad buy or good guy. But there are two sides and people from different backgrounds can get along, work together, be as successful and happy as other friends or couples that are from the same background.”

This theme was reiterated by many contributors, viewing intermarriage as a way couples can grow by relating to someone with a different background. In the words of Dr. Sahar Eftekhar, an Iranian Muslim dating a Jewish American, “Sometimes it is hard for others to put themselves in someone else’s shoes or to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I think this is a very dangerous thing. Underneath those stereotypes, which we have placed on each other, we are the same. We are all human…I hope our generation will be more open-minded and spread this message.”

Another post by Martha Patricia reads, “My mother is Jewish. My father is Palestinian. I am their face.”

Check out the tweets and enjoy the love, from pictures of people kissing to kids from different backgrounds hugging or sporting an Israeli flag on one cheek and a Palestinian flag on the other.  My favorite of the day is from Gutman himself: Hate is a waste of time.