Growing Inclusivity

  

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

The interfaith marriage news since the High Holidays has continued to be positive for the most part. I was especially pleased to read Rabbi Micah Streiffer’s Yom Kippur sermon announcing that he was going to start officiating at weddings for interfaith couples. I say “especially” because Rabbi Streiffer is in Toronto, Canada and as far as I know he is the first Reform rabbi there to officiate. I remember many years when InterfaithFamily was not able to refer people in Toronto to any “mainstream” rabbis, so this is a welcome breakthrough.

I also say “especially” because Rabbi Streiffer cites the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion in which Moses says that everyone present is entering into the covenant with God—and Rabbi Streiffer explicitly says that includes “the ger, the non-Jew.” That’s an argument I first made back in 2000. It’s very affirming to have a rabbi endorse of that view. It’s an exemplary inclusive sermon that is well worth reading.

A second great item was an article by InterfaithFamily’s Stacie Garnett-Cook, Interfaith Inclusion: One Year to Lasting Change, who asked, “What should an organization actually do to become more inclusive? Many organizations say that they are welcoming, but do our actions and words match our intentions?” InterfaithFamily’s new Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI), modeled on the Keshet Leadership Project and funded by the Covenant Foundation, supports leaders in organizations who create and implement action plans to accomplish those goals. The article describes the program design and underlying theory, as well as the organizations that participated in the first year.

The importance of being truly inclusive in attracting and engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community can’t be over-estimated. I hope many more Jewish organization will seriously consider participating in this initiative.

I was honored to be included in Moment Magazine’s Symposium, Is Intermarriage Good for the Jews? (If you want to know how I looked at 24, take a look at my wedding photo —my 7-year-old grandson said I looked “young”—and I assure you that the tie I was wearing was very fashionable at the time!) Marilyn Cooper did a great job putting together very diverse views; reading all of them carefully left me feeling, well, that there are very diverse views. I was the only person who actually said there are many strong arguments why interfaith marriage is good for Jews. Keren McGinity also expressed a positive view:

Provided that intermarried Jews and their families are treated equally as inmarried families, and that Jewish education is accessible and engaging, intermarriage can be an opportunity for Jews and their loved ones to draw closer to Judaism and the Jewish community.

Several contributors, including Bob Davis, A. J. Jacobs and Naomi Schaefer Riley, saw increased tolerance as a positive impact of interfaith marriage. Rabbis Matalon and Lau-Lavie, who are pushing the Conservative movement’s boundaries on officiation, offer very realistic assessments that I thought were optimistic about engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

But there were several expressions of quite negative views. In upholding the movement’s ban on officiation, I respectfully think Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is wrong to say that officiating at interfaith marriages does not help the Jewish people, and that “Reform rabbis have been doing this for quite a while and, for the most part, they have not succeeded in convincing the intermarried couples to be actively Jewish.” I think that is an untenable position given the research I’ve mentioned many times that shows correlation between officiation and later synagogue membership and raising children as Jews.

Two Orthodox perspectives insisted on opposing interfaith marriage, one saying “intermarriage is heartbreaking.” Sarina Roffe was most extreme: “Every time someone marries out, a whole generation of Jewish people is gone.” She comes from the Syrian Jewish community, which she says rejects not only those who intermarry, but even those who marry Orthodox converts.

I was puzzled by Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel, who says that if he had intermarried, “experiences that I currently derive tremendous meaning from would be missing.” I say puzzled because there is no reason why the experiences he mentions—saying Kaddish for a parent, preparing a son for his bar mitzvah, and watching a daughter learn Hebrew —have to be missing in intermarried families.

The Forward also published We asked 22 rabbis: Is intermarriage a problem or an opportunity which offered a not dissimilar set of diverse views. Susan Katz Miller had an interesting take on the piece, criticizing the sample for being half Orthodox rabbis (when the Orthodox are 10% of the population) and only two Reform, and the “corrosive” content of many of the responses. She correctly points out that interfaith families reading many of the opinions will not feel welcomed or included.

I was struck, however, by responses from two wonderful Orthodox rabbis, Shmuly Yanklowitz and Avram Mlotek, who did emphasize inclusivity. Rabbi Yanklowitz said, “With the proper inclusive programming and outreach opportunities, there are ways to make interfaith families feel welcome in the community, which will, in turn, spark interest in creating and perpetuating loving Jewish households.” Rabbi Mlotek said, “If our Jewish communities seek to be relevant religious centers for the 70% of American Jews who choose to intermarry, it is incumbent upon us to welcome these families unabashedly and work with them as they strive to build Jewish homes.”

Finally in the continuing discussion about Conservative rabbis and officiation, there is items. Letter Reignites Interfaith Officiation Debate refers to a letter by four Conservative leaders that re-affirms the ban on officiating for interfaith couples, but does talk at length about welcoming them. Conservative Jewish Leaders Are Endangering Their Brand is an opinion by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall who objects to the letter’s statement that the intermarried should be welcomed with “equally open arms.” Kwall wants to retain the Conservative brand’s strong preference for in-marriage — that’s a non-inclusive approach that I believe can only lead to decline.

The Flip-Side: Positive News About Intermarriage

  

Positive News

This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.

Alongside the negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.

Leave it to Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, to provide a much-needed perspective on how rabbis asked to officiate are actually helping interfaith couples.

Naomi Schaefer Riley has an interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the B’nai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says

If there’s one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, it’s the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isn’t 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 “hypocritical” 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 couldn’t in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders “have no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.” Despite that, Riley does think the B’nai 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 – after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding – 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, an excellent article in the Boston Globe 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 – “It’s not a minus one, it’s a plus one.”

Rubel says Honeymoon Israel’s goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but “to empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.” 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 “had settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.” This is very important. It shows what’s 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 – and there’s 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 28 percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith families and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish – for example, 89 percent of interfaith families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67 percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaith 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 “exciting” to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.

One of the report’s conclusions is that “there is room to grow the program among … intermarried families” 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. It’s interesting that PJ’s 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 JCC’s; that’s 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 – with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying “more cultural books… more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazing” – other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying “We value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.” It’s very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith families’ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Library’s efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.

After young interfaith families often come b’nai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post has a very sweet story about two families’ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah – the father’s mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didn’t have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs “to confirm their identity.” The father’s wife/boy’s mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldn’t 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, “I’m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. I’m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.” The son says, “The tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.” One more proof of what’s possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.

That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed in a fascinating episode on interfaith marriage 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 – 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 – for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesus’ divinity.

Finally, the new rabbi at Montreal’s 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 “makes 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.” And Keren McGinity persuasively presents the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.