What the Term “Interfaith Family” Means

Interfaith familiesToday 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.

Three Voices from the Conservative Movement

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):

We respect Rabbi Kalmonofsky’s perspective and emphasis on the centrality of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. But most Jews today don’t approach Judaism that way. They are looking for meaning through Jewish practices and a community of like-minded, Jewishly-engaged others. We don’t agree with Rabbi Kalmonofsky’s apparent dismissal of that as just seeking “happiness” or “sampling” Judaism.

 

Rabbi Kalmonofsky says that “No matter how nicely you say it, declining to perform someone’s wedding implies a cruel rejection.” That is certainly what we hear from the many interfaith couples with whom we connect over our officiation referral service – and it fully applies to his suggestion that rabbis says “for now, have a civil wedding, and we’ll wish you mazel tov.”

 

Rabbi Kalmonofsky says that a Jewish wedding ceremony cannot be a nonconverting gentile spouse’s “own” ceremony or “summon her to join our shared past, shared future and shared mission.” This is very off base; in our experience, when interfaith couples seek a rabbi to officiate at their wedding, they are looking for a ceremony that they both can own. The ceremony may not “summon” the partner who is not Jewish to formally “join” as a Jew, but it can certainly invite ongoing engagement and participation – which may or may not ultimately lead to conversion.

 

In the end, circling the wagons as Rabbi Kalmonofsky suggests may entrench his covenantal emphasis, but it will do so to an increasingly diminished group. As one Conservative rabbi we know says, this is “doubling down on a failed policy of rejectionism” that has “driven many away from Jewish life.”

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,

If Jewish leaders shifted to teach young people these and other pieces of relationship wisdom, rather than harping on the importance of in-marriage, we could help people truly flourish and, as a result, bring them closer to Judaism, regardless of who they marry.

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.

You’re One of Us

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 brit milah, who shep naches at their daughters’ bat mitzvah and who go to Israel on vacation — we say welcome. It’s a pleasure to know you. Come learn. You’re one of us if you want to be.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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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