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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
The media buzz about Conservative rabbis and officiation at weddings of interfaith couples has slowed, but there has been important commentary in the past three weeks.
The rabbis of theÂ Jewish Emergent NetworkÂ â certainly among the most progressive younger rabbis in the country âÂ expressed solidarityÂ with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie for raising important issues, expressing âhope that in the months ahead, the focus will shift from internal Jewish politics to the ways in which contemporary Jewish spiritual leadership, as it looks both to the past and the future, will respond to the increasingly fluid boundaries between the categories of Jew and non-Jew.â
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle had an excellent summary of the Conservative officiation debate in anÂ article about varying opinions of local Conservative rabbis. One rabbi said the Rabbinical Assembly should only change its prohibition if there is an adequate halachic basis to do so; one said if the RA changed its stance he still wouldnât officiate. The article reports that there is a petition being circulated to affirm the prohibition and that the RA has a Blue Ribbon Commission examining the boundaries of the prohibition â not overturning it, but defining what it means.
I was disturbed to read Steven Cohen quoted as criticizing theÂ Cohen Centerâs researchÂ showing a strong association between having a rabbi officiate and interfaith couplesâ later joining synagogues and raising their children Jewish. Cohen apparently says the study provides no evidence of impact and just shows that people who seek a rabbi are more Jewishly engaged. I think the Cohen Centerâs interpretation makes much more sense: âInteractions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the coupleâs prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.â
The article reports that Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, who said he would officiate for interfaith couples if the RA changed its prohibition, found a way to participate in a wedding without overtly violating it: while under the chuppah he delivered the âwedding talk,â while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony. He said, âI believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own childrenâŚ. And I have to say, âIâm so sorry I canât perform your wedding.â They never get over it.â He continued, and I think this makes a great deal of sense,
We are not going to have a better chance of a Jewish future if we reject our children. There is no chance then. The more welcoming we are, the better chance we have for a Jewish future. I do believe this is a matter of life and death for our movement. I believe intermarriage is not leading our kids away from Judaism. I believe it is our reaction to intermarriage that is pushing them away.
Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who was expelled by the RA because he started to officiate for interfaith couples, says that the leadership of the Conservative movement isÂ at odds with its members. âThe Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary may adamantly reject the idea that Conservative rabbis should officiate at interfaith marriages; the Conservative constituency overwhelmingly believes they should.â
Intermarriage is one of the clearest manifestations of the consequences of the gap between rabbis and constituents, which I believe is at the core of the crisis in Conservative Judaism today. But the fundamental issue is that while leadership still perceives Conservative Judaism as a halachic movement, its constituents do not. For them, Judaism is not about law. It is a matter of the heart and spirit. It is about intent, feeling, and identity. And when it comes to intermarriage, it is about love. It is not about adherence to technical standards that are arcane and burdensome, that lack transparency, and make life harder and more difficult. Like most non-Orthodox Jews, members of Conservative synagogues are seeking religious communities that enable them to celebrate the milestones of their life with joy and meaning, and which help them shoulder the burdens of a challenging society with greater confidence and purpose.
But where they seek peace, Conservative Judaism offers Halacha. Where they yearn for fulfillment, they are given the message that they are Jewishly inauthentic. Where they crave acceptance, they are judged.
The New Jersey Jewish News had an interestingÂ essay by Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptmann, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a grandchild growing up in an interfaith home. She says that as of now, she wonât officiate for interfaith couples, âbut I wish I could.â (The essay is about what she says is the more important question of how to get the children of intermarriage to grow up Jewish, and about the key role that grandparents can play.)
Finally, there was aÂ great article interviewing Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, who outlined six tips to make both sides feel comfortable while respecting their traditions. She explains she made the difficult decision to co-officiate because âthere have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.â
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Alongside theÂ negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.
Naomi Schaefer Riley has anÂ interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the Bânai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says
If thereâs one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, itâs the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isnât Jewish will turn around a few years later and push them to send their children to the synagogue preschool. In my interviews [for her book on interfaith couples], this practice is commonly labeled âhypocriticalâ by those affected by it.
Riley makes the interesting observation that the Catholic church used to require the non-Catholic spouse to promise to raise children Catholic, but decided it couldnât in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders âhave no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.â Despite that, Riley does think the Bânai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.
In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples â after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding â is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, anÂ excellent article in theÂ Boston GlobeÂ about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing interfaith marriages not as a loss â âItâs not a minus one, itâs a plus one.â
Rubel says Honeymoon Israelâs goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but âto empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.â Sixty percent of the couples who take the trip are interfaith, including the author of the article, who writes that a few months after the trip, her group âhad settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.â This is very important. It shows whatâs possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.
After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children â and thereâsÂ positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28Â percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith familiesÂ and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish â for example, 89 percent of interfaithÂ families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67Â percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaithÂ families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is âexcitingâ to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.
One of the reportâs conclusions is that âthere is room to grow the program among âŚ intermarried familiesâ and that PJ needs to expand efforts to reach more of the less-connected, less-affiliated families. I very much hope that PJ does that. Itâs interesting that PJâs influence is greater within the home; other studies have found that interfaith families are more comfortable engaging in Jewish life at home with their family than in more public, organized settings. The report notes that PJ traditionally has reached families through organized institutions such as synagogues, Federations, or JCCâs; thatâs not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than families that are solely Jewish; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.
The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books â with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying âmore cultural booksâŚ more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazingâ â other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying âWe value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.â Itâs very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith familiesâ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Libraryâs efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.
After young interfaith families often come bânai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post hasÂ a very sweet storyÂ about two familiesâ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah â the fatherâs mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didnât have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs âto confirm their identity.â The fatherâs wife/boyâs mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldnât have been able to do it. The other family included a Jewish mother from the FSU, married to a man named Bernstein who had a Jewish father but was raised Catholic; the father says, âIâm still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. Iâm Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.â The son says, âThe tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.â One more proof of whatâs possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.
That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed inÂ a fascinating episode on interfaith marriageÂ on the BBC radio show “All Things Considered.” The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the U.K., a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50 percent of U.K. Jews are now in interfaith marriages, and that more U.K. Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples â as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas â for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesusâ divinity.
Finally, theÂ new rabbi at Montrealâs Dorshei Emet, reportedly one of the few if not the only Reconstructionist congregations where interfaith weddings are not done, comes with experience officiating for interfaith couples and âmakes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.â And Keren McGinity persuasively presentsÂ the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Thereâs been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who weâve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in theÂ Washington Post:Â I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.
Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offeredÂ Itâs Time to Say âYes.âÂ Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation howÂ The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a âYesâ to Interfaith Couples.Â But another young Conservative rabbi wrote aboutÂ five steps to âsave Conservative JudaismâÂ â with no mention of interfaith families.
In June an article in theÂ ForwardÂ about rabbis trying toÂ make the Conservative movement more gay-friendlyÂ mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; âLau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.â
Lau-Lavieâs Lab/Shul hadÂ announced an annual celebrationÂ on June 13 featuring âthe revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americansâ â but the news is out in an piece by theÂ ForwardâsÂ Jane Eisner,Â Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews â And The Jew-ish.Â As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use theÂ ger toshav, resident alien, concept âwithin a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.â He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he wonât co-officiate). He will engage academics to âstudy whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.â He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.
Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is âfascinatedâ by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, toÂ simultaneously commentÂ that while we âneedâ Lau-Lavieâs approach, it wonât succeed unless Jews âunderstand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.â
I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, hasÂ expressed open-nessÂ to the experiment â but cautions that itâs the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.
In the newÂ ForwardÂ piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children arenât raised Jews-by-religion, itâs not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have aÂ new paperÂ released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews donât measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.
That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away. Â Eisner says she wants to âsustain and enrich modern Jewish life;â Cohen says âBeing Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us â to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.â We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands â and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life â with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.
In an otherwise really nice article,Â How My Daughterâs Bat Mitzvah Almost Didnât Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family âsurvived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.â Â Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but theÂ ForwardÂ editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.
In an otherwise fine article titledÂ College doesnât turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says âcollege education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.â In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse â being intermarried â with assimilation. He should know better.
Reza Aslan and Jessica JackleyâsÂ TEDx talkÂ about how they are raising their children withÂ Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.
Iâll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim KeenâsÂ Inside IntermarriageÂ â I was honored to write the Foreword â will be available on August 1 but can beÂ pre-orderedÂ now. The third edition of our friend Anita DiamantâsÂ The New Jewish WeddingÂ â now titledÂ The Jewish Wedding NowÂ â came out this past week.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland served as director of IFF/Bay Area until June, 2017 and is the incoming rabbi at Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.
When I met my first girlfriend at 22 years old, I fell head over heels.Â My mind was swirling for at least a yearâprocessing how this person would change my life, when and how I would tell my parents I might be a lesbian and how her more conservative parents would take the news.Â But mostly it was swirling from being in love.Â The last thing on my mind was the fact that she wasnât Jewish.Â And that isnât because I didnât care about Judaism; in fact, I was on a path to become a rabbi.Â I knew I would always live a Jewish life and any kids I might have would be raised Jewish as well.Â On the list of things to fret about, her religious identity was far from the top.
Since then, these overlapping identities have profoundly shaped my work. My two greatest passions are supporting people in interfaith relationships and exploring the intersections between LGBTQI identities and religion.Â In some ways, they are distinct: The first deals with choice in a modern landscape while the other is usually thought to be a non-choice that pushes against the foundations of many of the worldâs religions, including Judaism.
The two converge around the principle of otherness. Because both challenge entrenched religious boundaries, people identifying as interfaith or LGBTQI often feel like the quintessential other. In the 20-some years since that first girlfriend became my life partner, I have found that both realities inform the way I see our relationship and my connection to Judaism.Â In working with other interfaith LGBTQI couples, it seems that some of my personal revelations are far from unique.
In honor of LGBTQI Pride Month this June, I set out to explore how we can best honor LGBTQI Jews and their partners who arenât Jewish.Â What is particular about the cross section of identities when LGBTQI people are in interfaith, interracial or intercultural relationships?
When my partner and I offered our vows to one another, we recalled words from the Book of Ruth.Â In this biblical story, Ruth, the Moabite, vows to follow the Israelite, Naomi, declaring, âWherever you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.â Acknowledging that they come from distinct cultural backgrounds, Ruth tells Naomi that they will always be family.Â This Pride month, letâs celebrate the diversity in our LGBTQI relationships
A Reform rabbi, a Conservative rabbi and a 17-year-old Orthodox Yeshiva student sit down to eat Shabbat dinnerâŚ Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?
Well, itâs not.
It was my family last Friday night. We were also joined by my two younger children. In myÂ family, weâve got a taste of kâlal Yisraelâthe whole Jewish communityâunder one roof. I often tell my younger kids jokingly (well, mostly joking) that if my oldest son goes on to get Orthodox smicha (rabbinic ordination, which many males in his Orthodox community do) then I want one of them to be ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, so we can have rabbis in all four major denominations of Judaism in our immediate family.
I was thrilled to have my oldest son home for a weekend break from his Yeshiva (Orthodox boarding school focused primarily on the study of traditional Jewish texts) and to have my whole family gathered together around our Shabbat dinner table. As I blessed my children after lighting the Shabbat candles, I put my hands on each of their heads and then kissed them, and I thought about how lucky I was to have each of them and how much I love each and every individual in my religiously diverse Jewish family.
Sure, having a very observant Orthodox child (which he has been for two years now) in our family isnât always easy. I had always assumed that my kids would all live at home until going off to college at the age of 18, but instead my oldest began boarding at an out-of-town Yeshiva this past September, when he was 16-and-a-half, and I miss having him at home. But when he is at home itâs challenging that our level of kashrut (Jewish dietary observance) isnât as strict as his. While my husband and I will eat fish or vegetables at regular restaurants, heâll only eat at a kosher restaurant with a hashgacha (kosher certification) that he accepts. His lifestyleâs very different from ours so that, even when heâs not at school, itâs not really possible for him to travel with us unless we were to go to places where predominately Orthodox families travel, so that he can pray, eat and follow laws of modesty in ways that are comfortable to him. But those same lifestyle choices might be uncomfortable for the rest of us.
We make it work. When heâs home, we go to our favorite kosher restaurant. Last December we took our two younger kids out of school a few days early to go away over winter break so that weâd be back in time for our oldest son to come home for his long weekend off that started on December 29.
As I tell the interfaith couples that I work with, and as Iâve come to appreciate in my own life: Being in a relationship means respecting differences, honoring the person you love even when you disagree, compromising where you can, and knowing what issues are non-negotiable for you and for the other person. (For example, my son wonât attend a service where men and women sit together, so I accept that he wonât come to my synagogue when heâs home. And he accepts that, while Iâll wear a long skirt and follow the other laws of dressing modestly while visiting him at school, unlike his classmatesâ mothers, I normally wear pants.)
Equally important is working hard not to judge the other person. When my son started to become very observant, my husband and I sat him down and said to him: âWeâre very concerned about you being Orthodox, because Orthodoxy is so judgmental.â My son looked us in the eyes and without missing a beat said: âDo you have any idea how judgmental youâve been of me and of my being Orthodox?â The words stung, because we knew he was right. We werenât really being as open-minded, tolerant and accepting as we thought we were. Sure, itâs easy to be tolerant of whatever youâre already comfortable with. Itâs a lot more challenging to be tolerant when something is outside of your comfort zone.
I often speak to parents whose adult children are in interfaith relationships. I tell them that when our children are young, we can choose how we raise them and what we expose them to. We have all kinds of expectations about what they should be like and what they should do as they grow older. And we think that by what we tell them and with the example we set, we can control how theyâll later lead their lives and the choices theyâll make.
Sometimes this is true. But other times, our children will follow their own paths, and fall in love with someoneâor in my sonâs case, a way of lifeâthatâs different from what weâd planned. This can be difficult, but ultimately we need to respect and honor our childrenâs choices. This same advice I give to parents whose kids are in interfaith relationships applies to my own religiously diverse family.
Being in a family with intra-faith differences, like being in an interfaith family, has its challenges. But just like being in an interfaith family, it also has its blessings. The bottom line is that I love my wonderful, crazy family with all of our intra-faith diversity. It isnât always easy, but itâs my family, and I couldnât imagine it any other way.
Being from an interfaith family has influenced my life in myriad ways, most especially in my choice to focus my rabbinate on working with other interfaith families. Iâve written about my own upbringing and my parents several times over my tenure at InterfaithFamily, hoping that my own experiences might resonate with our readers. Yet, so far, everything I have shared has been in my voice and from my perspective. So, in honor of Motherâs Day and to honor my mother, I interviewed her to finally shine some light on her perspective.
I asked her a variety of questions about her early life and meeting my dad and then about how they made decisions about religion as they had children. While we have had many conversations throughout my life touching on similar topics, I have never sat down with my mother and asked her what it was like for her to be in an interfaith family, especially long before it was as accepted as it is now.
My mom is a special woman; quiet and thoughtful, passionate yet relaxed. I am the Jew, the rabbi, the human being I am because of her and my dad. I hope you enjoy a piece of her story.
Some background: My mother, Kathy, was one of five children born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts in a very Polish Catholic family. When she was 18, she packed her bags and headed to college, the first in her family to attend, where she met my father Richard, a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were married by a justice of the peace in 1972 in Boston.
Me: When you were dating, did you ever have conversations about how you were from different backgrounds/religions?
Mom: We didnât really have a big conversation. Neither of us were particularly active in our religions. I grew up in a pretty Catholic family. My grandmother lived with us and was from Poland. The church was her life. She grew flowers and every day brought them to put on the alterâit was within walking distance from the house. I never personally felt that connection even though, as a child, I attended every Sunday.
Richardâs family wasnât particularly religious either. He wasnât practicing Judaism when I met him. So obviously, we were more concerned about what our parents would think as opposed to what we were going to do together.
Me: When you did decide to get married, how did your family react?
Mom: There were certain members of my family, some aunts, who didnât think it was right.Â My grandmother, who lived with us, wasnât supportive. They didnât come to our wedding. It stung not having them at my wedding, but it didnât disturb me for any length of time. But my parents and my sisters and brother were all on board after talking it through. It was just the way my parents were. They were very accepting and compromising and after having a conversation, my father said, âItâs your life, you make the decision.â And after that there were no repercussions.
Me: Did you know any other people who were also marrying someone from a different religion?
Mom: We went to college in Boston and there were a lot of people from the New York/New Jersey area and Massachusetts. So we were meeting different people all the time. My roommate, who was Catholic, met a Jewish guy from New Jersey and they were also married, a little after we were married. A couple of other people we knew in a similar situation also married. There didnât seem to be a barrier. It was kind of exciting to meet someone who was different. And religion never seemed to be a problem. It was the end of the â60s: These old barriers were meant to be broken.
Me: What was the conversation about who was going to officiate at your wedding?
Mom: We wanted a Justice of the Peace because it would just make it easier. Neither of us were connected to a synagogue or church and we felt that would be the easiest and cleanest. It wouldnât be favoring one over the other. We didnât care. We really didnât take religion into account at that point.
Me: In the first years of your marriage, before you had children, did you have any connection to religion?
Mom: For the first 10 years of our marriage, before we had children, we were a-religious. We might have gone to a family friendâs house for Passover once, or Christmas at my parentâs house, but never at our home. Because my upbringing was pretty rote (learn the Catechism, study the prayers, follow whatever you needed to do), it didnât feel relevant to my life at all. Judaism seemed interesting to me.
Me: When you were planning to have children, did you have any conversations about religion?
Mom: Recognizing we had two families each with different religions, we thought, weâll wait until our child is old enough to choose. It lasted for a little while, but it was naĂŻve to think that a child was going to grow up without a religion and suddenly pick one. When you were a baby, we thought that us teaching you would be enough.
Me: When did we start having any religion in our lives?
Mom: Well you know this story, Jillian. You had a friend named Julie, who was Jewish. She invited you go to her Hebrew School class and you came home and asked. You knew your dadâs family was Jewish and mine was Catholic. We did explain this to you, that one family celebrated certain things and the other family celebrated other things. We wanted you to experience the world, so we said yes to you going to Hebrew School. But this came as a surprise to us.Â We were cringing that now we would have to deal with this issue.
So you went, loved it and asked if you could go again. And we thought, uh oh, this is the beginning. So we went to the temple to check it out and we spoke to a few people and were told we had to join, even though we were not eager to join. But we joined, so you could go to Hebrew School.
It was a Reform synagogue, so there was never a problem with me not being Jewish. They were eager to have us and they welcomed us wholeheartedly.
Me:Â What was your experience at synagogue?
Mom: It was like deer in the headlights! When do I stand or sit, what do I do? It was just a totally foreign way of having a religion as opposed to Catholicism. I was confused but learning as I went along. I felt welcome, everyone was very nice. We met a lot of older members of the synagogue who were thrilled we were there, and we are still friends with them now. It was a great community to be a part of. After learning more about Judaism, talking with people, listening to the Rabbi, I realized that this is a whole different animal than Catholicism. It was more about finding meaning, things you could bring into your life. It wasnât about memorizing; it was about thinking and challenging yourself. When I caught onto that, I thought, this is interesting to be a part of. It was a better religious experience for me than I had as a child.
Me: The question I canât believe I donât know the answer to: If someone were to ask you now what religion you are, what would you say?
Mom:Â I would say Iâm Jewish, just to make it easier.Â I never converted, so I know Iâm not technically Jewish.Â But from a view of the world, a philosophy, I am.
My momâs story might be a bit like yours. Perhaps you related to a few things she said, remembered feeling similarly or maybe your story is vastly different. Whichever the case, telling and listening to stories is such a wonderfully and necessary human thing to do. We learn from each other, we gain perspective, we feel connected and less alone when we take the time to listen and learn about each other.
Finally, I want to thank my mother, Kathy Cameron, for being open with me, allowing me to make her story public and for being the best mom a girl could ask for. Happy Motherâs Day, Mom.
Want to honor someone special this Mother’s Day? Make a donation to InterfaithFamily in their honor.
Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgoveâs article in the New York Jewish Week, âMikveh Can Solve Conversion Problemâ and Rabbi Shaul Magidâs article in The Forward âWhy Conversion Lite Wonât Fix The Intermarriage Problem.âÂ Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word âproblem.â
I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isnât the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposedâin fact, I often donât know what the article is going to be called until I see it online or in print. Editors give headlines to articles that they think will attract readers. And so, I presume that it wasnât Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word âproblemâ in the headline of either of their articles about interfaith marriage (though in the first sentence of his article Rabbi Magid stated that intermarriage is âarguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewryâ). But, the editors of the articles did choose to use the word and I find that disturbing.
For too long, the Jewish community has referred to interfaith marriage as a problem. It implies that the people in those marriagesâthe Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different backgroundâare also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, weâve been talking out of both sides of our mouth. On the one hand, we spend our resources (both time and money) trying to figure out how to engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life, and on the other hand, we tell these people that theyâre a problem. So, hereâs a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, letâs stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.
Throughout the four years that Iâve been working for InterfaithFamily, a national organization whose mission is to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life and to advocate for the inclusion of people in interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, Iâve been especially sensitive to the language thatâs used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. Iâm constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who arenât Orthodox. We hear about the âproblemsâ and âchallengesâ of interfaith relationships and we see classes on âthe December Dilemmaâ and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.
Iâm proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesnât just reflect the way we think; it also shapes the way we think. At InterfaithFamily, we speak about the challenges *and* blessings of being in an interfaith relationship and we offer classes on âthe December Dialogueâ or âthe December Discussion.â
We at InterfaithFamily also advocate for framing discussions about interfaith marriage not as how we can solve a problem, but rather as how we can view interfaith marriage as an opportunityâan opportunity not simply to increase our numbers in the Jewish community, but also for the Jewish community to evolve in a rich and meaningful way, with people who did not grow up Jewish bringing new insights and perspectives as they choose to engage in Jewish life.
I ask the editors of the Jewish press and others in the Jewish community to join us in our effort to reconsider the language being used to discuss interfaith marriage. Please, whether you see interfaith marriage as an opportunity or not, stop calling it a problem. At the very least, why not just name it as what it is, and what itâs sure to remain in the future: reality. Once we accept this reality, and stop referring to it as a problem to be solved, we can surely have a more productive conversation about how to best engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life in a way thatâs meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.
I recently got introduced to a childrenâs book called Zero by Kathryn Otoshi. Itâs a book aimed at preschoolers, but adults will also love it. In the book, Zero feels left out of the counting that all the other numbers get to do. They have value as counted numbers, but Zero doesnât. She tries to impress those numbers with little success and even tries to look like them. Zero then realizes that she can convince the other numbers that if they add her on, they will count as a higher number. With Zero, they became 10, 20, 30, 100 and more. After reading this book, my kids and I were prompted to a discussion about how it feels to be left out and how sometimes we want to dress like someone else or act like someone else to fit in.
As the story of Zero unfolded, my interfaith family inclusion buzzer went right off! (This happens to me quite often.) It reminded me of a talk I heard earlier this year at Temple Sholom that was sponsored by A Wider Bridge. The talk was given by the leaders of The Aguda, an Israeli NationalÂ LGBT Task Force.Â They shared about a tour they did in LA of one of the largest LGBTQ agencies in the world. When they asked an agency executive about where their work would be headed in the next 10 or 15 years, the executive responded that maybe they can work themselves out of a job in the decades to come. The Aguda leaders thought this was a sad answer because they believe it will take years to win legal equal rights across all areas that touch LGBTQ people in America and internationally. It might take just as long to bring about cultural acceptance including ending homophobic and transphobic discrimination. The Aguda leaders hope that when that day comes, there would be many more agencies and organizations devoted to LGBTQ people because communities around the globe would feel incomplete without the overt contributions that queer people would bring. In other words, queer people and their varied lenses of life would add essential value to leadership positions, boards and councils in all professions.
To me, the same is true when it comes to interfaith family inclusion in Jewish life. Congregations need to find ways to support couples around lifecycle events, especially weddings. They may also need to translate Hebrew so that people reading their website or sitting in services will have a more meaningful experience. Classes should be offered so that people who need a refresher or a first-time explanation have ways to learn. Rabbis need to share stories during family Shabbat gatherings that represent same-sex parents, single parents, interfaith families, gender non-confirming children and racially diverse families.
Congregations should look at membership forms, school enrollment materials and written ritual policy statements to make sure they are inclusive and sensitive. It will go far when congregants acknowledge the gift a parent who didnât grow up with Judaism is giving to help raise children with Judaism. It is wonderful when the parent who isnât Jewish can be referred to in the positive (rather than just ânon-Jew,â) as someone who is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, secular and so forth, along with the other parts of their identity like activist, volunteer, their profession, etc.
For families like mine, where both partners are Jewish, and for Jewish professionals, the main lesson from Zero is that we need to realize people from different backgrounds in our communities enrich our expression of Judaism. Inclusion of people who didnât grow up with Judaism should be seen as equal to those of us who did grow up with Judaism, and the gazillions of complicated amalgamations in between help us all count more. A diverse community adds energy, creativity, beauty and depth to this ancient and always dynamic civilization of Judaism.
Thank you to Zero for reminding me of this sacred goal.
Anti-Semitic acts have been happening in our country every day for the past couple of months. And every day I get asked the same question, âWhy should I be Jewish?â
To be Jewish is to accept the challenges along with the joys. To have Jewish heritage is to be born into a club of which you will always be a member, even if you choose not to engage in Jewish life. To choose to be Jewish, or to be partnered with someone Jewish, you are joining a family where you become part of its celebrations, accomplishments, disappointments, failures, challenges and tragedies.
So why choose to be part of a family with such tragic stories in the distant and not so distant past? Why wake up every day and make the choice to be part of a family that is the recipient of hateful speech and acts of terror and desecration? Why be a part of a group who sometimes seems to have more challenges than joys when, in America, you can choose to be anything?
I asked this question on Facebook and was given a lot of answers to why people choose to engage in Jewish life. But, I also received some questions:
How can you even choose?
Is it a choice to be Jewish?
Can you choose to ignore your family heritage?
What if you donât have Jewish family heritage?Â
How do you choose Judaism?
I want to add a few more questions to the above. If youâre in an interfaith relationship, why choose Judaism as your household religion, when it would be so easy to ignore or deny it? Being Jewish seems to come with all this extra baggageâwhy voluntarily carry it and ask your family to carry it?
Why do interfaith couples go out of their way to practice Judaism when being Jewish means subjecting yourself to scrutiny and possibly danger?
How about when it means sending your kid to school at a JCC or Jewish day school knowing it may get threatened and evacuated?Â Or when it means going through a metal detector for synagogue? And after all that, when it means people repeatedly tell you that youâre not really Jewish, or your familyâs not Jewish or your family and relationship is leading to the decline of Judaism? Why do interfaith couples and families keep it up?
Love of the pastâof the parent to whom Judaism was so important. Or of the grandparent who died at Dachau or Sachsen-Hausen. Or for the mother-in-law who wants so badly for your children to be Jewish.
Love of the presentâof the partner to whom Judaism is so important. The synagogue that needs your membership and participation to keep its doors open. The community that welcomes you and celebrates with you in times of joy and supports you in times of sadness. The connection you feel to other people as they navigate the journey of being Jewish in an interfaith family.
Love of the futureâto give your children a tradition and culture. For Judaism to continue, thrive and flourish. For the Jewish tradition to think of the next generation and plant the seeds of faith and community that only our children and grandchildren with see the fruit of. For the story found in a Jewish text, called the Talmud (Taâanit 23a), in which a man named Honi plants a carob tree, knowing that it will not bear fruit in his generation. When asked why he would care about a tree that wouldnât offer him any fruit, he answered, âPerhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.â This view of Jewish engagement is hope for the future.
Keeping faith in a time when you are unsure, when your people are being threatened, is an act of love. Itâs an act that transcends you and is bigger than you and your family. You find your own reasons for engaging Jewishly and having a Jewish identity. And through it all, you know thereâs a bigger reason for your family. Through the fear, threats, insults and the rejection, you stick with it and pass through your family the love you have for the past, present and future of Judaism.
Everyone has their own reasons for this love. Familial heritage may resonate with you or Jewish continuity may drive your Jewish identity. Maybe itâs the participation in community events or Jewish ritual that increases your connection with Judaism. In a world where anti-Semitism is part of our daily lives and freedom of religion is part of our society, people have a choice how they identify with Judaism.Â I hope you will find your own reason for being in the family as you #ChooseLove each day.
Why do you #ChooseLove and choose Judaism? Share in the comments.
I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is âIâm Dreaming of a White Christmas.â Itâs not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (Iâm an Arizona kid after all). Itâs my favorite because it was my dadâs favorite.
Hereâs a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. Iâm pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeralâŚ and maybe the only time itâs ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that itâs Christmastime again Iâm hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar âstatusâ as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesnât happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesnât matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching âElfâ and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people whatâs âOKâ for them to do Jewishly. I do feel itâs my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape familiesâ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that heâs gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parentâs family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. Iâve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. Iâve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.