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Even if You Don’t Plan To Convert, You Should Learn About Your Partner’s Religious Heritage: The Value of Introduction to Judaism Classes
When I was in rabbinical school in the late 1990s and in the years following my ordination in 2000 I had the great pleasure of teaching the Reform movement’s 16 week Introduction to Judaism class. I found it incredibly rewarding to have the privilege of exposing my students to the fundamentals of Jewish thought and practice. While a few of the students in my classes were Jews who wanted to learn more about their religious heritage, the vast majority of students were not Jewish but had Jewish partners and they registered for the class because they were considering becoming Jewish. In those days, like today, many Reform rabbis required that conversion students with whom they were working take the Intro class as one of the requirements for conversion.
At the first class session, I would always invite the students to introduce themselves and to share why they had signed up for the class. Often, after saying a few words about himself, a student would say: “And I plan to convert once I’ve completed this class.” Sometimes, the student who said this had been married to a Jewish person for years, raised Jewish children, been a part of a synagogue community and already knew a lot about what it mean to be Jewish. In those cases, the Intro class was the final step in a long process, and the person speaking truly knew what was involved in choosing to become Jewish.
Other times, the student who said this was someone who was dating or perhaps was engaged to someone Jewish, but he admittedly knew very little about Judaism. In those cases, I would encourage him to have an open mind and to learn as much as possible about Judaism—both in and out of class—and to defer making any decision until he had a better sense of what it meant to be Jewish. Then, if living a Jewish life was truly compelling to him, conversion would be the right path for him to take.
As a rabbi—and as someone who loves being Jewish and believes that Judaism brings meaning to my life and to the world—I think it’s wonderful when someone chooses to become Jewish. I have served on many b’tei din (rabbinic courts) for people becoming Jewish, and I have always found the experience to be incredibly powerful. It is truly an honor to be part of a person’s process of becoming Jewish—as long as the person is becoming Jewish for the right reason—that is, because she truly wants to be Jewish…not because her partner, or partner’s parents, want her to be Jewish. To me, serving on a bet din where someone is converting for the purpose of making a partner or other relative happy would be a mockery of the conversion process. Which is exactly why I would tell students in my Intro class who were just beginning to learn about Judaism: “Take your time, learn about Judaism and THEN decide if you want to convert.” And even if the student who was dating, engaged or married to a Jewish person never made the decision to convert, they would have learned about—and presumably developed a greater respect for—their Jewish partner’s religion in the process of taking the class.
Ten to 15 years ago, when I was teaching Introduction to Judaism classes, there were lots of students in the classes. I think that this was in part due to the fact that the liberal Jewish community put a lot of pressure on Jews marrying people of other faiths to convince their partners to convert to Judaism. For a number of reasons, this has changed. Thanks to the work of many individuals and of organizations like InterfaithFamily, the liberal Jewish community has become more welcoming to interfaith couples and families. Parents who aren’t Jewish—even if they are actively practicing another religion—can be part of their Jewish child’s religious upbringing…not just driving their children to and from Religious School, but learning alongside their children, participating in synagogue and Jewish communal activities and having a role in their Jewish children’s lifecycle events. Perhaps that explains why some of the Introduction to Judaism classes near where I live in Philadelphia are having trouble attracting enough students these days. Conversion to Judaism, and the intro classes that are an essential part of the conversion process are no longer seen in many liberal Jewish circles as the “necessity” that they once were.
However, just because someone whose partner is Jewish does not intend to convert, and may intend to continue practicing his or her own religion, I don’t think that they should refrain from enrolling in a class such as the Reform Movement’s Introduction to Judaism or other similar class. In Philadelphia, for example, the Conservative Moment sponsors the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, which offers a 30-week Introduction to Judaism class twice yearly to learn about Judaism. There’s tremendous value to learning about the history, beliefs and traditions of your partner’s religious heritage. For example, in a recent blog, InterfaithFamily wedding blogger Anne Keefe writes about how she, a practicing Catholic, is taking an Introduction to Judaism class not because she is thinking about conversion, but to learn more about her fiancé Sam’s religion.
I would encourage anyone who is seriously involved with a Jewish partner to consider learning more about Judaism. Similarly, I would encourage any Jewish person in an interfaith relationship to learn about their partner’s religion. Regardless of your own religious beliefs or practices, it can only benefit your relationship to learn more about your partner’s religious heritage.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you are in an interfaith relationship. If you are not Jewish but your partner is, have you taken an Introduction to Judaism or other similar class? If so, what was the experience like for you? If you are Jewish, have you taken a class to learn about your partner’s religious heritage? What class did you take? What other steps have you taken to learn about your partner’s religious beliefs and traditions?
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Reform movement, has weighed in with an important op-ed on JTA, Outreach to Interfaith Families Strengthens the Jewish Future. We offer kudos for thoughts like this:
But to Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Leon Morris, we say “for shame” for their Did Moses Intermarry? Who Says He Did—and Why Do They Want To Know? Cohen and Morris certainly are entitled to take the misguided position that Jewish leaders should encourage in-marriage. But it strikes me as twisted and shameful to criticize those who want instead to promote Jewish engagement by interfaith families for holding out Moses and Tzipporah, among others, as Biblical models of interfaith couples who contributed to Judaism. The people in the “promote in-marriage” camp profess, however reluctantly, to want to engage in Jewish life those interfaith couples who do marry, but their readiness to take away these positive role models for that engagement reveal the very low priority they would give to those efforts.
Two related kudos: to our friend Rabbi Kerry Olitzky for publication of his new book, Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future. And to the Forward’s Nathan Guttman for his article, Rabbis Shift To Say ‘I Do’ to Intermarriage, which quotes at length Rabbi Daniel Zemel and Rabbi John Rosove, both of whose writings on officiation can be found on our site.
A group of “concerned Jews” in response to the Pew survey propose to take concerted action to encourage Jewish leaders to encourage in-marriage. Julie Wiener writes that “the intermarriage debate” has “reignited” in a JTA article that was picked up by the Forward. Jodi Bromberg, InterfaithFamily’s new President, and I wrote an op-ed for eJewishPhilanthropy, Promote Jewish Engagement, Not In-Marriage. Paul Golin from JOI also had an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week.
To us the key point is that all of the actions any proponent of in-marriage proposes – increased Jewish education, social networks, Israel trips – are worthwhile because they promote Jewish engagement, which is what everyone on all sides of this debate wants. We say encourage those actions for that reason – because they promote the Jewish engagement we all want, regardless of who people marry. Encouraging those actions because they promote in-marriage is self-defeating – it will alienate the majority of the audience who will intermarry regardless of what Jewish leaders recommend.
Ironically, perhaps coincidentally, yesterday was the day of the very moving memorial service for Edgar Bronfman. One very subtle comment stood out to me: Hilllary Clinton expressed gratitude to Edgar and Jan Bronfman for the friendship and support they provided to Chelsea Clinton when she married a Jewish man. Edgar Bronfman, who will be sorely missed, understood the importance of genuine acceptance and welcome much more than the group of Jewish leaders who want to encourage in-marriage.
There’s an uproar in Israel because a son of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is dating a Norwegian woman who is not Jewish. Daniel Treiman at JTA reports that some religious Knesset members are voicing dismay at the “big problem” of the son of the Prime Minister possibly intermarrying.
Almost every public statement that comes out of Israel about intermarriage equates it with assimilation and loss of Jewish identity and engagement. They just don’t get that many interfaith families are engaging in Jewish life.
It would behoove Jewish leaders to extend an embracing welcome to prominent couples who intermarry. We live in a culture crazed with celebrity – if celebrity interfaith couples engage Jewishly, that may increase the interest of others. That’s why we urged Jewish leaders to extend a big mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton a few years ago.
Speaking of mazel tov, Liel Liebovitz had it right in Tablet:
In an unfortunate convergence, some of the leading Jewish journalists have almost simultaneously published more counter-productive negative messages about intermarriage.
The first piece is by Gary Rosenblatt of the New York Jewish Week. Here is the letter to the editor I just submitted:
The second is an editorial in the Forward. Here’s my letter to them:
The people in these positions of Jewish leadership ought to stop to think about the impact of what they say about intermarriage on young interfaith couples – the Jewish partner or the partner who isn’t Jewish – who are exploring Jewish life, considering making Jewish choices, and quite naturally looking for welcome, acceptance, and embrace.
We were sorry to learn that Jennifer Gorovitz will be stepping down as CEO of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.
Most of the commentary has focused appropriately on the small number of women who have lead federations – Jennifer was the first woman to head a large city Federation in North America – and expressed hope that many more will follow in her footsteps.
We’re feeling a loss more personal to InterfaithFamily in particular and the field of engaging interfaith families more generally. Jennifer was a leader among Federation leaders in championing the importance of Federations taking action to engage interfaith families. She was instrumental in making funding possible for InterfaithFamily/San Francisco Bay Area, and spoke about the project with us on a panel at the 2012 General Assembly (the Federation system’s annual conference).
We truly appreciate Jennifer saying in her own statement that she was “particularly proud of transformative grants to Keshet and InterfaithFamily” and describing them as among “the many inspiring ways that the Federation is building Jewish lives and deepening and broadening its reach.” And she is exactly right in saying that for Jewish Federations and organizations to maintain their relevance and thrive into the future, “we will all have to embrace… substantive and meaningful engagement of Jews of all ages and backgrounds… including interfaith Jews…”
Fortunately IFF has a lot of strong support in the San Francisco Jewish community – and that community has a lot of strong leaders. We wish the Federation well in their search to replace Jennifer and hope they find someone who shares her passion for engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. And we especially wish her well as she builds the next chapter in her life.
Perhaps you have heard this old joke about an elementary school boy who comes home very excited to share some news with his parents. “I got a part in the school play!”
“That’s wonderful!” his mother replies, “what’s the part?”
“I play the Jewish father,” the son beamed.
His mother sat up, alarmed and with full sternness, “You go back and tell your teacher that you want a speaking part!”
In light of so much talk about the recent Pew study, I would like to turn our attention to an equally fascinating study prepared by CJP, The 2005 Greater Boston Community Study: Intermarried Families and Their Children.
First, the good news for intermarried Bostonians who want to raise their kids Jewish: According to this study, 60 percent of intermarried families in the Greater Boston area are raising their kids as Jews. This is good news compared to the more recent Pew study that found the national average in the rest of the country around 25 percent. If 2005’s survey was any indication (and I know this is a rough comparison of two different studies), Boston is faring stronger for raising Jewish children than the rest of the country. Why is Boston doing so much better? Well that is a whole other blog to write about.
But here’s an interesting part of the CJP analysis that I want to get to: If the mom is Jewish, so the survey says, there is an 80 percent likelihood that the children will be raised as Jews. If it is the father that’s Jewish, only a 32 percent chance (p.19).
Why is this? Dads see themselves as lacking the time? The passion? Are we lazy on Sundays? What’s the deal?
I am proud of our long and storied history of the classic, strong Jewish mom who runs the household, but why are so many of our “classic dads” so complacent? The world is changing fast and our children are growing even faster. I must confess that the reason why my daughter makes it on time to Hebrew School on Sundays is because of my wife—the not Jewish counterpart of my interfaith relationship. So I must be the exception, more than the rule. I lucked out that my wife understands commitment and once we made up our mind to raise our kids Jewish, she is exceptionally committed.
But if she were not so on the ball, I can see how easy it is to fall behind the eight ball. Many of us didn’t love our Hebrew School experiences, and are indifferent. Our parents followed their role models of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants, who were anxious to lose their authentic ethnic backgrounds and fit in. To be fair to my assimilated ancestors, there was horrible anti-Semitism back then that I did not have to suffer through as they did. Although anti-Semitism is not gone by any means and has a deep decoy of anti-Zionism (that’s another blog too), it is safer to be “publicly Jewish” now.
But there still comes a time in everyone’s life when they need to stand up for what they believe in. Everyone is so very busy these days and our children are as over-programmed as the adults. I get it. It can feel like a real schlep to get to Hebrew School on the weekends, but if we engage in some Jewish education ourselves, it need not be such an effort. It can be downright joyful. So as we enter a new year, ask yourself, “Am I a lazy dad?” or better yet, “What do I really care about?” Judaism has so many answers and there are tons of amazing opportunities to learn in Boston. Why walk away from the most amazing education you can give your family. Just try it out. Start the year our right and get involved.
Getting back to that old joke about the speaking part. There are many plays that could use a re-write, and there is no reason to continue putting all of the pressure on one spouse to do everything. Get involved and speak up, Dads. Your future is counting on you and if you get involved just even a tad more, a whole world of beauty and wonder from Judaism will open before you.
As a rabbi, it’s not unusual for me to get a call from a Jewish parent whose child is engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish. The parent usually asks if we can get together to talk—sometimes they want to talk because they’re having a hard time accepting the fact that their child is going to be in an interfaith marriage and other times they want to discuss a particular issue that has come up. Here is some advice that I often give to such parents (which is really just a variation on advice that I give to parents of adult children in general):
1. Your child’s marrying someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t necessarily a rejection of Judaism…or of you. As I wrote in my recent blog “Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism” just because a person falls in love with someone of another religion (or no religion) it doesn’t mean that they don’t value their Judaism. Many people today don’t see loving someone of a different faith and having a strong Jewish identity as being mutually exclusive. Your child can love their partner and they can love being Jewish—and they can love you too!
2. Give your child the time and space to make his/her own decisions. You probably have lots of questions: Will they have a Jewish wedding? Are they going to have a Jewish home? How are they going to raise their children? While you may want to know the answers to all of your questions NOW (if not yesterday…), your child and his/her partner may not have all of the answers yet, and even if they do, they may not be ready to share them with you. Let them know (through your words, and even more important, your actions) that you respect their right to make decisions on their own time frame and to share them with you when they are ready.
3. Accept that these are your child’s and his/her partner’s decisions to make. Notice that I didn’t say that you have to agree with—or even like—all of their decisions. It may be very upsetting to you that your daughter has decided not to be married by your rabbi or that she is going to have a Christmas tree in her home. But she is an adult and these are decisions for her and her partner to make, not for you to make. Odds are that she already knows how you feel about these things and if you critique everything she tells you then she may not want to keep sharing with you.
4. Be honest, but respectful. It’s OK to be honest about how you feel. You can tell your son that it makes you sad that he won’t be married in a synagogue or that his fiancé isn’t converting to Judaism. Most of us aren’t such great actors anyway and it’s always best to be honest—while recognizing that sometimes, as we learned as children, “if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” As you share your feelings, make sure that you are clear that they are your feelings—and while they are real and will hopefully be acknowledged by your son, remember that he and his partner are going to make their own decisions and that while the intent of these decisions isn’t to make you sad, this may be the unfortunate byproduct of some of their decisions.
5. Ask your child if s/he wants your opinion or advice. Your daughter may share with you some of the challenges she is dealing with in her interfaith relationship. For example, she may tell you that she’s angry at her fiancé for insisting that she go to church with his family on Easter, or that she’s hurt that her fiancé won’t come with her to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Odds are that if you offer advice and she doesn’t really want it, or you propose a solution that ends up not working for her and her fiancé, the result is that she will be mad at you. So how do you know what she wants? ASK! You can simply say: “Do you want to just vent and I’ll listen to your feelings, or do you want to hear my opinion and my advice?” That way, you’ll know her real purpose in sharing with you and you can respond accordingly. And if she tells you that she wants you to just listen but not offer your opinion, but this is too difficult for you to do, then you should be up front about it and not get into a conversation that won’t be productive for either of you.
6. Get to know your child’s partner. Your son fell in love with the woman he’s going to marry, so presumably there’s something very special about her. If you haven’t already done so, then get to know her and treat her with kindness and respect. Invite her to participate in Jewish events and celebrations—that is, if these are things you would be doing anyway. If you have Shabbat dinner as a family, invite your son and his fiancé to join you so she can share the beauty of Shabbat with your family. Be welcoming and explain to her what’s going on, while being careful not to be patronizing. But if you don’t regularly go to synagogue on Saturday mornings, don’t invite her to synagogue with you just so you can “counteract” the fact that she isn’t Jewish.
7. Talk to other parents whose children have intermarried. As in many situations, it’s often nice to feel like you’re not alone. It can be helpful to speak with someone who has had a similar experience who can understand how you are feeling and who can provide you with advice and support. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, join our Facebook group and get in the conversation.
What advice would you offer to a parent whose child is intermarrying? If your child is married to someone of a different religion, were you given any advice that you found helpful? Is there advice you found not to be helpful?
All of us at InterfaithFamily are mourning the loss of Edgar Bronfman, who died last night.
As early as 2004, we reprinted an article from the Jerusalem Post whose title conveyed Edgar’s attitude and foreshadowed all of his future efforts in our field: Bronfman: Children of Intermarriage Are Also Jews.
Back in 2008 I wrote that InterfaithFamily, which started as an independent non-profit in 2002, had plateaued at a funding level of $375,000 until 2006, and that I had given serious thought to closing IFF because of lack of funding support for our cause. But a tide turned in 2006, and we raised over $500,000 that year, and over $800,000 in 2007. How did this happen? Because Edgar Bronfman was the key catalyst. The Samuel Bronfman Foundation was our first major new funder that year.
We enjoyed support from Edgar and SBF for many years after. I’ve only been to the Jewish Funders Network annual conference (which isn’t meant to be a place for grant-seekers to seek grants) once: because Edgar and SBF sponsored a reception at which we spoke about IFF. And I had two memorable lunches with Edgar at what I understood to be “his” table at the Four Seasons.
More important than his impact on InterfaithFamily, though, was his impact on the cause of engaging interfaith families. The importance of welcoming interfaith families was the centerpiece of his important 2008 book, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance. Edgar’s son, Adam, has also been outspoken in the past on the same issues, with coverage in a 2007 JTA article, and in a speech at the 2008 GA.
But the sentiments that Edgar Bronfman spoke so explicitly and repeatedly about welcoming interfaith families have sadly been rare among Jewish leaders. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anyone of Edgar’s stature who has been willing to forcefully assert the critical importance of engaging interfaith families to the liberal Jewish future. When the Pew Report generated huge discussion in the Jewish world starting this past October, the voices of the leadership of the Jewish community seemed to all be delivering the tired old “stem the tide of intermarriage” message.
No one comparable to Edgar Bronfman was heard delivering his prophetic message, in Hope, Not Fear:
We can only hope that some Jewish leader somewhere will pick up the mantle Edgar has left behind and continue to champion the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
We send our condolences to Edgar’s family and to the staff of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the non-profit organizations that were closest to his heart.
This is it. That time of year that many intermarried Jews dread: Christmas tree time. Especially if you go as far as getting a tree and stringing it up on the roof of your car and driving to your house as quickly as possible (maybe even ducking as you drive by your shul, so the rabbi doesn’t see). It used to feel so wrong, so shameful: “What will the others think?”
Where do our values come from? How do these questioning voices appear in one’s head? Often our values are shaped by our parents and our teachers and our peers. My elementary school upbringing consisted of attending an Orthodox Hebrew Day School and the message growing up was clear: If a Jew has a Christmas tree in his house, he has gone “too far.” If you bring a tree into your house, you might as well put a swastika on top for you have betrayed the Jewish people.
My mother would mourn for the Jewish people if she saw it, and fear I would have lost focus on my roots. Oy, assimilation-1, Jews-0. My environmentalist friends would moan the betrayal of the earth, to drag a tree into one’s house for one week of the year. How horrifying! Don’t get me started on the gifts. The commercialism of Christmas is horrendous and the wrapping paper and packaging is tantamount criminal. The spoiling of kids with gift after gift. The plastic. The cookies. The elevated levels of acidity in one’s blood sugar as one holiday party bleeds into another. The drinks. The decadence.
But of course, I went to Hebrew School. My brother and sister and I would watch all of the holiday Christmas specials and feel like outsiders. We loved the cartoons and the stories of spreading cheer and goodness and charity. Charity and community service that we were taught to do regularly were emphasized on one special day for the majority of Americans, and we were on the fringe and couldn’t (or didn’t know how to) really participate at all.
And there I was 30 years later, a grown adult making decisions of my own. It’s true, if both people in a relationship are of the same religion, these kinds of things are rarely a problem. The best we could hope for would be to go out for Chinese food and play cards, which was the running joke of many of our childhoods, the thing that all American Jews do on that holiday.
But things have changed. These are different times. Would I choose to get a tree for my family like my friends from Baltimore? No. Not in a thousand years. Is it a ritual that I embrace and make my own filled with meaning? No, not that either. So what changed? For me, it is about respecting my wife’s background. Deb pointed it out like this: We have a very Jewish household. We light Shabbat candles, do Kiddush and blessings, make challah, send our kids to Hebrew school, sing Hebrew songs, have mezuzot on our doorways, give Tzedakah regularly, celebrate all the holidays, engage in Chevurah groups, the list goes on and on… But there is just one thing—just one thing—from her past tradition that she wants to keep and it shouldn’t be too much to ask.
She never converted, and to her, Christmas had nothing to do with religion (I know, I know, that one is really tough for me), but was about hot chocolate and sleigh rides and getting cozy and thankful and making snowmen and caroling and decorations and parties with friends and family and creating magic for the children. Time to relax as a family.
Well when you put it that way, it shouldn’t be too much to ask. So I go along for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). I assure you that it’s not easy. And I still have a hard time with it since I am a committed Jewish educator (who is coming out of the closet with the confession to having a tree over the years). But relationships are about giving to the other and not ruling with an iron fist. Would I recommend that Jews have Christmas trees in their houses? Do I buy into the commercialization and environmental waste associated with Christmas? Not at all on either count.
But do I love my wife? Yes! Is this tradition really important to her and her family? Yes! If I grin and bear it for one week of the year, will my kids continue to go to Hebrew School and have bar and bat mitzvahs and identify as Jews throughout their lives? Yes! So all that was stopping me was closing my mind to honoring what my life partner wants. And that was no longer acceptable to me.
I am not the only Jew who struggles with this. So I wrote this blog to allow people to open up and share with their partners what they care about. There is more than enough evidence that children who grow up in committed Jewish households survive the Christmas Tree thing just fine and live their lives as committed Jews.
If you want to hear more perspectives on how intermarried Jews approach the Christmas tree issue, check out this insightful packet with some meaningful questions.