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.

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.

 

Our Thoughts on Israel

Like everyone in the Jewish world, we at InterfaithFamily are deeply concerned about recent developments in Israel.

IFF does not take positions on the Israel-Palestinian issue, what the Israeli government or the Palestinian authorities should or shouldn’t do. We have staff and stakeholders who represent different views on this highly charged topic.

We do feel strongly, however, that exposure to Israel is a very positive experience for people in interfaith relationships. We have always encouraged content representing Israel in a positive and welcoming light, whether it is a story about a Birthright Israel participant who has one Jewish parent, or a story about an intermarried parent taking his family to Israel. These types of stories have always had a home at InterfaithFamily.

This December InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia is sponsoring a trip to Israel for interfaith families. We believe this trip will be an incredible experience for our participants. We are also in the process of exploring our role in the efforts to send newly married interfaith couples to Israel on a wider scale in the future.

We also feel strongly that Israel is threatened by negative opinion and vilification around the world, and that it is important to express support for Israel and for efforts to peacefully resolve conflict there. We are hopeful that steps will be taken in that direction speedily. Our hearts and minds are with our friends in Israel who are currently dealing with violence at this time.

The Relationship Between Intermarriage and Israel

JerusalemToday in The Jewish Daily Forward, an article was published by Nathan Guttman: “Does Intermarriage Drive Young Jews Away from Israel?” The article suggests that yes, being the product of an intermarriage is a major factor in young Jews’ feeling alienated from Israel. That, along with liberal political views.

I’ll let you read the article yourself for the statistics these conclusions were drawn from, but suffice it to say, whether or not children of intermarriage are more likely to feel alienated from Israel, let’s do a better job at engaging interfaith families in Judaism, including Israel.

Let’s make our synagogues welcoming, let’s not turn away interfaith couples from the community, let’s encourage children of interfaith families to take advantage of trips to Israel. On that front, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia is now registering interfaith families for our subsidized trip to Israel in Dec. 2014-Jan. 2015. Learn more here.

Netanyahu’s Relationship: It Is Up to Us, Not Them

NewsIt is with great disappointment that I take in the flurry of media articles about the son of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s relationship with a Norwegian student who is not Jewish. In a world filled with monumental challenges, the press focuses our attention on the dating choice of one young man, even going as far as making a comparison between young Mr. Netanyahu and Prince Edward VII. Why is the news interest focused on the matrilineal inheritance of the young woman, rather than her character? The real story here is that the press thinks a high profile interfaith relationship is a scandal and it isn’t.

Is there a relationship between the future of Judaism and the person we date? The truth is, we really do not know. Many smart and engaged Jewish leaders have interpreted the results of the October Pew survey with a resounding “Yes”! I would like to offer up a different perspective, one that is rooted in InterfaithFamily CEO Ed Case’s intelligent commentary on the topic. The future of Judaism is not at risk as a result of intermarriage. It is at risk due to a lack of engagement among Jews, their partners and families, and the organized Jewish professional community. We do not know how the statistics on Jewish identity would differ if we had chosen to promote a different philosophy on intermarriage 20 years ago.

We should be looking inward, to ourselves and our behavior as the keepers of Judaism. It serves no purpose to fault an individual person’s behavior for our shortcomings as a community. What if once a month, each of us who are connected to the Jewish community took the time to reach out to another individual or family who is not connected? We could invite someone into our home for Shabbat dinner, accompany them to a service at our synagogue, to a Jewish fair, festival, or concert. It is amazing what can happen when we reach out our hand to another person. As connected Jews, our individual daily actions, including our words, can and will make a great impact on the future of Judaism in our communities.

Embrace Gay Married Jews but not Intermarried Jews? I Don’t Think So

There is a pretty offensive article on the Forward today, Why Intermarriage Poses Threat to Jewish Life – But Gay Marriage Doesn’t. It’s by Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and like most Israeli commentators, he doesn’t understand liberal Jewish life and community in the US.

Finkelman says that liberal American Jewry has a lot to gain from embracing LGBT married Jews, but that embracing intermarried Jews is an “uphill climb” that will “depend on a huge investment” that he clearly thinks is not worth making.

This analysis is misguided on many levels, but what immediately comes to mind is the very small numbers of people who would be impacted by embracing LGBT married Jews. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of including LGBT Jews – and their partners – in Jewish life and community. But it is well known (perhaps not to Finkelman) that the rate of interfaith relationships is much higher among LGBT Jews than among straight Jews. The 2011 New York community study, for example, found (at 249) that while 22% of married Jews there were intermarried, 44% of LGBT married Jews were intermarried.

These wedge-driving arguments are really troublesome; many lay Jews are already upset with rabbis who will not officiate for interfaith couples but will officiate for LGBT couples if both partners are Jewish. I can’t imagine that advocates of Jewish LGBT inclusion would agree with Finkelman’s analysis and encourage more attention to the LGBT community at the expense of efforts to engage the intermarried. There has to be room in our communal efforts to do both.

Growth at Israel in the Gardens

Booth at eventFor the first time InterfaithFamily/San Francisco Bay Area had a booth at the Jewish Community Federation’s annual Israel in the Gardens event. The event, which draws 15,000 people, once again took place at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, next to the Metreon and across the street from The Contemporary Jewish Museum. Israel in the Gardens brings together folks from across the community, Jews, their friends and allies, and sometimes just a passerby. There are also those who do not support Jewish causes and/or Israel, and they can be found picketing just outside Yerba Buena, easy to ignore once you pass through security.

Before the event, we prepared ourselves to respond to individuals who may not agree with what we do. Thankfully, we had only one individual who challenged our work (or their perception of what we do). The conversation remained cordial and he walked away.

Israel in the Gardens logoMany visitors signed up for our bi-weekly eNewsletter and an online profile on our Network. They discovered the classes and workshops that we offer, including: Raising a Child with Judaism, Preparing for Bar/Bat Mitzvah with your Interfaith Family, and Love & Religion – Online. They were pleased to find out that we offer a clergy referral service for couples getting married and those looking for Jewish clergy to officiate at lifecycle events.

The highlights were the many great conversations with interested folks. One person walked by and just gave us a thumbs-up sign. He didn’t need to stop and talk, but wanted to show his support. Another individual walked by, stopped momentarily to say “thank you for doing what you do.” One person stopped at our table to tell us his story of getting married to a wonderful woman 40 years ago, and the challenge they faced of finding a rabbi (back then). His wife was not raised Jewish and theirs was an interfaith wedding. They did find a rabbi, and were scheduled to get married at Glide Memorial Church with an Episcopalian Priest co-officiating. At the last minute, the priest’s diocese would not allow him to officiate, so they were married by a rabbi in the church. Forty years later, they are still happily married. I wish the same happiness for all couples and InterfaithFamily is here to help you succeed!

Grow with us seedsVisitors took home Forget-Me-Not seeds so that they can “Grow with us” as InterfaithFamily/SF Bay Area continues to impact the community. We look forward to growing with you!

Israel Doesn’t Want Reform Converts?

There is a very powerful op-ed in the New York Jewish Week today, Israel Doesn’t Want a Reform Convert Like Me by Rabbi Heidi Hoover who serves as rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn.

Jewish status in Israel is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, and conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis – and now even under by some Orthodox rabbis – are not recognized. Because Rabbi Hoover converted to Judaism under Reform auspices, her conversion is not recognized, and she concludes, “Israel doesn’t want me.”

I think Rabbi Hoover is exactly right when she says,

One of the messages that American Jews receive relentlessly is that we need to support Israel. There is much hand wringing over the perceived lessening of American Jewish connection to Israel among teens and young adults, and even among rabbinical students. I believe this lessening of connection is in part due to a growing number of American Jews who cannot fully live as Jews in Israel because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate….

The question of Jewish status depends on who you are asking, or whose opinion you care about. Rabbi Hoover tells people in her congregation who are converts under liberal auspices, and people who identify as Jewish whose mothers were not Jewish, that “they are, in fact, Jewish,” but she wants them to be prepared that there are those who will not recognize them as such. That’s important, especially for the many young adults raised as Jews in interfaith families whose Jewish status would be questioned by others.

I think Rabbi Hoover also is exactly right when she concludes,

It is crucial that American Jews of all denominations join to support religious pluralism in Israel, and in the United States as well. We need to find ways to respect and recognize each other’s conversions and life-cycle rituals. There are not so many of us that we can afford to be divided, and if Israel continues to disenfranchise American Jews, she cannot expect their support to continue indefinitely.

NCIS: Interfaith Couple?

NCIS: promo for "Sabbat Shalom"

I enjoy watching NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), the CBS crime drama that airs Tuesday evenings. I appreciate the multi-culturalism on the show. Often I turn to my husband for a Spanish translation of a line here or there. I was excited when Cote de Pablo joined the cast in season three. She plays the Israeli former Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency) officer, Ziva David. For me, it is even more fun when they throw a little Hebrew into a show. I appreciate that they seem to “get it right” in both phrasing and accent.

Last week the episode “Shabbat Shalom” aired. Of course I was intrigued when I saw the title in my DVR. I assumed it had something to do with Ziva, why else the Hebrew title? As I watched the episode I learned that Ziva’s father, the head of Mossad, came to the U.S. to see her and to broker a peace agreement with his Iranian counterpart.

Little did I know that the episode was a cliffhanger. But this week on Tuesday night I was taking the red-eye to Boston to meet my InterfaithFamily coworkers in-person for the first time; I wasn’t able to watch the episode. As I was gathering my suitcase and heavy jacket, expecting it to be colder in Boston than it was in San Francisco, my best friend called me. She was also travelling for work this week and watched NCIS from her Maryland hotel room.

“What does Tony say to Ziva at the end of the episode?” she asked. I didn’t know, it wasn’t even going to air in California for another three hours. I was headed to the airport and wouldn’t be able to watch until Friday. She couldn’t wait until Friday for the answer; so, as any good friend would do, I googled it. “What does Tony say to Ziva at the end of NCIS?” Since the episode had just ended, there wasn’t much about it online yet. Apparently there was some buzz a few years ago when Tony said something to Ziva in Spanish. But that wasn’t what I was looking for.

NCIS: promo for "Shiva"


I added “2013″ and “Shiva” (the title of this episode) to my search. IMDB wasn’t up-to-date yet so I had to rely on Yahoo answers where I found the question: “At the end of the newest NCIS episode tonight, what did Tony say to Ziva before she left? I think it was in Hebrew, but I didn’t catch it.”

Great! Someone must have posted the answer… the first two entries: “I love you” and “Ani ohev otach, I love you.” As much as I (and apparently others) want Tony and Ziva to get together, that didn’t seem right to me. I hadn’t seen the episode but I knew what happened last week and I was pretty confident it wasn’t time for Tony’s declaration of love for Ziva.

I kept reading the yahoo answers. “You are not alone.” Ok, that made more sense. The fifth post read: “he said ‘aht lo leh vahd‘ a translation thing on the internet said it means ‘you are not alone.’” I love that we can use the internet to translate Hebrew on mainstream TV in the U.S., and post the answer for others! I called my friend back and reported the two options. Having seen the episode she also ruled out “I love you.”

So this morning, finally back at home I watched the episode waiting (and waiting) for Tony’s line. He does say “aht lo leh vahd” which does mean “you are not alone.” What does it mean for the relationship between Tony and Ziva? All we can do is continue watching NCIS and see; I look forward to them being the next intermarried couple on TV.

The Importance of Jewish Education

I read a post on the Reform Judaism blog with great interest, as, based on the title alone, Youth Engagement is Not The Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum clearly jibes with my beliefs. The authors offer 12 tips to keeping youth engaged in/with Judaism through the end of high school. As too many youth end their education with their bar/bat mitzvah, this is a great model. However, I see concerns with point # 4. To quote:

Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.”

Basic Jewish literacy is not only the key to the Jewish community’s survival, but it fills one’s life with meaning, awe, purpose, joy, connectedness and so much more. Teens may take a Jewish studies class in college, but if synagogues have not prepared our most involved students to live Jewishly we have failed. Our students must be able to confidently walk into their colleges’ Hillel, participate in and even lead tefillah (prayers), and talk with facts and context about liberal Judaism. A basic knowledge of both conversational and liturgical Hebrew is essential.

I meet with many late 20-somethings who are getting married. Over and over I have seen the partner who is not Jewish asking their love what Judaism believes about life after death and the meaning of suffering, how we bring the messiah, what they believe about God, what meaning they find in the prayer book and the stories of the holidays, what the Jewish perspective is on Bible stories, and the Jewish partner is clueless. They immediately explain it away by identifying as a cultural Jew or by saying they’re more spiritual than religious. It is the partner who isn’t Jewish and remains curious that often pushes the Jew to learn about their own religion, traditions and faith; inevitably the Jewish partner talks about how they learned nothing in religious school or remembers nothing.

Our teens learn other languages, read great literature in high school, know about art, have opinions about current events, and yet are not exposed to the depth and complexity of their own religion. Why? We think learning about Judaism will be boring, will feel irrelevant!

It is wonderful if our teens go to Israel, enjoy Jewish summer camp and take part in social justice work. But if our teens are functionally illiterate about Judaism, none if it will have any deeper meaning or enduring value.