When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Of relevance to our readers are the discussions about Birthright’s creation, with goals that included ending (combating?) intermarriage.
The story of Birthright begins with the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. The findings unleashed a panic within the halls of American Jewish institutions: 52 percent of Jews were marrying outside the faith. Steinhardt, a legendary hedge-fund manager, was among the Jewish community leaders who rallied to confront what soon became known as the “crisis of continuity,” characterized not only by intermarriage but by the weakening of Jewish communal ties such as synagogue membership and a waning attachment to Israel. A Goldwater Republican turned chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, Steinhardt wanted to make Jewish institutions more appealing to the young. He enlisted Yitz Greenberg, a well-known Orthodox rabbi and educator, as director of the foundation that would incubate Birthright. Reflecting on that 1990 survey some years later, Greenberg said, “I felt I’d been asleep at the switch as this disaster was coming.” Birthright trips, he hoped, would shore up a social order in decline.
The originator of the Birthright idea was Yossi Beilin, a Labor Party stalwart and an instrumental figure in the Oslo Accords. Widely considered an archliberal and reviled by Israel’s right, Beilin is an unlikely figure to boast the moniker “godfather of Birthright.” In a recent phone interview, Beilin compared his worries about intermarriage and Jewish identity to “the personal feeling of an old man who wants to see that his family is still around.” Among Beilin’s top goals for Birthright: “to create a situation whereby spouses are available.” An ardent Zionist and longtime friend of Bronfman, Beilin unsuccessfully pitched Birthright to him and Steinhardt in the mid-1990s.
Here in Boston, there was both a Dyke March on Friday night (complete with a Shabbat dinner picnic potluck) and the rainy Pride Parade on Saturday. Around North America (and many other regions of the world), parades and activities happen throughout the month in recognition of Stonewall and LGBTQ rights (achieved or desired).
Following the month’s trend, the Reform Judaism blog has a post today called “On Being Straight in the World’s First Gay Synagogue.” And though it’s up there to mark June as Pride month, I think there’s more to it than lessons on LGBTQ inclusion. The author, Maggie Anton Parkhurst, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first gay synagogue (founded in 1972), writes:
We are diverse in more ways than sexual orientation. Yes, we are a Reform congregation, but our members have all sorts of Jewish backgrounds, from converts and Workman’s Circle yiddishists, through mainline Conservative to Orthodox yeshivahbochers. Despite these differences, we share a commitment to gender neutrality and equality at services, along with lots of singing.
We also represent Los Angeles’s varied ethnicities, which is abundantly clear when members read from the Book of Esther in fourteen different languages at Purim. Tolerance and embracing the stranger are BCC’s hallmarks, especially the latter, as everyone walking in on Shabbat receives a warm welcome. Even and especially people who feel excluded, or worry about feeling excluded, at other synagogues.
At first, all this diversity was uncomfortable compared to the suburban temple where our children grew up….
This is key. Whether welcoming individuals or families who are LGBTQ or interfaith, something as simple and easy as welcoming each and every person goes a long way. Have a greeter at the door to say “welcome” and “Shabbat shalom” to each person – be they regulars or newcomers. Every congregation – Reform or not, LGBTQ or not – can take a lesson from Beth Chayim Chadashim to ensure that all of us, strangers all, feel embraced and welcomed.
If you’re not familiar with Storahtelling, they’re a ritual theatre company, focusing on bringing the Torah, and Judaism, to wider audiences, making it more accessible and relevant today. I didn’t crib that from their mission statement, so allow me to excerpt it here:
Storahtelling restores the Torah Service to its original stature through a revival of the lost craft of the Maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. Rooted in biblical text and ritual practice, Storahtelling uses dramatized interpretations, traditional chanting, orginal music and live interaction to bring Bible off the page and onto the global stage.
The event was great, celebrating Storahtelling’s “b mitzvah,” which, as founding director Amichai Lau-Levie explained, is a “bar mitzvah, a bat mitzvah, a b mitzvah inclusive celebration for all genders.” And what a b mitzvah it was! Storahtelling turned 13, honoring their founding director, their incoming executive director and members of the board.
But what’s a b mitzvah without a little Torah? Jackie Hoffman, Jewish actress and comedian extraordinaire, studied with the Storahtelling staff, learning the Torah parsha that would have been her bat mitzvah parsha when she was a girl (raised Orthodox, Jackie didn’t have the option). She tackled a topic that many shy from: the rape of Dinah.
She broke the story up, making it more palatable, relevant and interesting. She interspersed chanting and discussion – with a healthy dose of humor, of course. (Amichai gave the English translations to Jackie’s Torah chanting on the fly.)
With more than a little (much appreciated) feminism flavoring her words, Jackie gave voice to Dinah. Dinah, the central character of this story, does not have any of her own words in the Bible. So Jackie, channeling Dinah, asked why the women of the Bible were too often chattel, to be swamped and shared amongst the men. She set the scene: Dinah had “two Jewish mothers. Think about that for a moment. And 12 stinky brothers.” She asked why Dinah’s mother was so willing to marry Dinah to the man who had raped her. (“Was she so desperate to see her daughter married, she’d ok a man who would defile her? Oh wait, that’s my mother!”) And she might have relished in her telling of the circumcisions of the men of Shechem: “They were in penis pain for three days!”
But it was an impromptu statement after she finished (and after she accepted her present from the “Sisterhood,” two gay Storahtelling staff) that summarized Storahtelling’s work so perfectly: “I’m a person who hates everything, and I dug this experience hard.”
And that’s just it. For Jackie, it was about bringing in some feminism, giving voice to the silent and suffering Dinah, and wrapping it all up in some jokes. For others, it might be highlighting gay characters or interfaith families, placing the Torah stories in contemporary settings, drawing and singing and acting the stories… bringing them to life. If you have the chance to get to a Storahtelling event, I highly recommend it.
[sub]*The only thing that would have made this night better? Had I gotten my photo taken with the hilarious Jackie Hoffman. And had she performed her Shavuot song, just for me.[/sub]
Justin felt that if it was something that Jesus would have said, he wanted to say it as well. (-shema/">Jewlicious)
We’re talking, of course, about Justin Bieber saying the Shema before each of his concerts.
But the Biebs isn’t Jewish. His mother, a single parent, is an Evangelical Christian. Before concerts, Bieber and his crew would form a prayer circle. His manager, “Scooter” Braun, and his music director, Dan Kanter, are Jewish.
Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, is a single parent and a devout evangelical Christian. She would lead the prayers, which would end, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Scooter, an alumnus of Camp Ramah, along with Bieber’s music director, Dan Kanter, are Jewish; and they decided to add in their own prayer to the circles, the Shema.
If you have a ‘tween girl in your life, or, really, pay attention to the media at all, you know that Bieber’s movie, Never Say Never, opened this weekend. In it,
Bieber is seen reciting the “Shema” prayer in Hebrew prior to the big concert, but the sound is drowned out, and only the most astute listener would be able to figure out what is being said. This scene actually ended up on the “cutting room floor,” but was reinserted into the film at the request of Justin’s mother.
And it’s not just Braun and Kanter reciting it:
By their third pre-concert prayer circle, Justin added his voice to Braun’s and Kanter’s prayer as well. Shocked, Braun asked Justin how he knew the Shema.
Having already cribbed this blog post from Jewlicious rather heavily, I’ll leave you with this final excerpt:
Justin replied that he had looked it up online and memorized it. Justin felt that if it was something that Jesus would have said, he wanted to say it as well. It would also connect him more to his manager. Braun, one of the teen idol’s de facto parents and father figures, explained to him what the prayer meant, the oneness of the Lord, and its centrality to modern Jewish worship. Thus began the tradition of Justin reciting the Shema prior to going on stage. (Of course, one can quibble and argue that in the year zero CE, prayer books were not in use and the order of personal prayers differed from the modern selections and patterns. But who am I to quibble?)
So if you’re curious to hear what was said about interfaith families, interfaith inclusion, at the largest gathering of the North American Jewish community, look no further. We have a copy of Ed’s remarks here, just for you.
You may know that founding InterfaithFamily.com as an independent non-profit was the brilliant idea of its CEO, Ed Case. But did you know that Ed had a 22 year career in law before he decided to focus full time on interfaith issues? We never know where good ideas come from, but we do know that unless you do something about it, nothing will ever happen. We have all benefited from Ed’s work and the incredible resources available through InterfaithFamily.com, so lets take a moment to thank Ed for acting on his idea, taking a risk and working so hard to make the Jewish community more inclusive.
Now its your turn to act on an idea that will change our community. PresenTense Group (www.presentense.org) runs 7 Fellowships in 6 cities, through which they provide tools and community support so that anyone can turn an idea or early stage program into a sustainable venture. PresenTense is currently seeking applicants for the NYC Fellowship. So if you live in the NYC area and have an idea for improving the New York Jewish and greater community – through social justice, interfaith work or anything else, this message is for you: Embrace your entrepreneurial side and apply today!
The second thing is a book review of Susan Handelman’s Fragments of Redemption by my friend Adina Levin. Why a book review? Because it contains a lucid and easy to understand discussion of Walter Benjamin. That’s not something you come across every day.
The third thing is a website that helps people write ethical wills, called www.ethicalwill.com. Writing an ethical wills is a Jewish cultural custom that anyone can adopt–the practice of putting on paper the moral legacy you’d like your children, grandchildren and students to have from you. What do you think are the most important insights you’ve learned in your life? If you are having a major lifecycle event, like a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, a divorce or a serious illness, it could be a good time to put it all on paper. Your ethics may be Christian or atheist or Buddhist, but passing them down is Jewish–the perfect custom for an interfaith family.
What should we do about divorce in interfaith families? Two people who are always smart about interfaith family issues, Laurel Snyder, the editor of the book Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes and Julie Wiener, a Jewish journalist writing on interfaith marriage for the New York Jewish Week, have written recently about outreach strategies and the Reyes divorce case. They said some things that have me saying a big Amen.
Because the single greatest problem I see in Jewish intermarriage is not a Christmas tree, it’s this—the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed. In all the most troubled cases I’ve encountered, this is the unifying narrative. Mom turns orthodox or Dad is born again. Dad moves to Israel or Mom marries a minister. Usually, divorce stands in for the lethal bus accident.
There is a polarizing force in divorce that attaches itself to religion. Religion helps to soothe the jangled soul of the newly single parent, creates automatic community and home. So divorce drives us into the bosom of faith. But for a kid who has grown up with one set of rules and signifiers, the sudden shift, the change in terms, can be brutal. At a time when things are already baffling enough.
People who worry that interfaith marriage might lead to assimilation sometimes express the wish that intermarried partners would divorce. Aside from wishing misery on other people, which has to be some kind of sin somewhere, there’s this problem: adding a further layer of destabilization to a kid’s life by throwing their religious life up in the air.
And this case brings up the other “solution” to interfaith marriage–pressuring the non-Jewish spouse to convert. As Julie Wiener put it:
While I think conversion to Judaism can be a wonderful thing, too often the Jewish community pushes it in a way that seems like a dishonest, cosmetic solution to intermarriage — about making things look good, about covering up the non-Jewish partner’s embarrassing heritage and making the Jewish family feel like good Jews, rather than about encouraging real soul searching. I wonder how many of these cosmetic conversions actually last beyond the marriage that spurred them.
Julie then told the story of a woman she met who confided to her that though she’d converted during her marriage, she felt unmoored and like “nothing” after divorce.
A person can’t predict how he or she will feel in the wake of divorce. Most people don’t get married thinking, “this love is too good to last.” We can’t really blame people for changing their beliefs even in a marriage. What the Jewish community can do to support interfaith families is to get over discomfort about the role of non-Jews in the community. It would be better for people in the Jewish community to live with the discomfort of figuring out how to include non-Jewish spouses and family members in Jewish life than to pressure people for cosmetic conversions. The stakes are high–let’s go for the big win and not the bus wreck.
I have often felt uncomfortable with the word spiritual. It’s usually used in a way that makes me feel inferior, because I don’t know if my experiences measure up. I mean, I get a lot out of traditional Jewish practice, like prayer and making blessings and doing mitzvot and stuff like that, but I can’t say that what I’m getting is spiritual. It’s a little zap or zing of feeling, something emotional, but maybe that’s not spiritual? I don’t know. I also get a little thrill reading poetry or listening to religious music in other traditions, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Mavis Staples–but is that a spiritual thrill?
Nevertheless, I wrote a Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, after about three months of research and introspection–and kvetching. (The kvetching was surprisingly fruitful, if utterly unspiritual, because people responded with their insights in the face of my whining.) I thought a lot about how interfaith families have unique opportunities for hiddur mitzvah, making the performance of commandments extra beautiful and excellent.
After I wrote my piece, I found this blog post on jewsbychoice.org, Three Meaningful Spiritual Practices for Rural Isolated Jews. I love this! The practices that I chose for my guide were very community-based ones, and I am so happy to see something about how to find something meaningful on your own.
Another nifty thing I came across after I wrote my guide was Pam Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation. I’m friendly with Pam and really excited about this new edition, which becomes available today. You can read and hear an interview with Pam on the pbs.org website. Psalms are a really important part of Jewish (and many Christian!) worship services, so a new translation that gives a chance to rethink them is very exciting. (Plus I’m so stoked to realize I watched Pam working on this at the Diesel Cafe! That’s just nifty, you know?)
I’d love to hear from you about your meaningful spiritual practices.
The false crisis — declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent — has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.
My first reaction to Kaunfer’s argument that the key is peer engagement and intellectually rigorous study is “Right on!” After all, that’s been my life in the Jewish world. Though I did train as a Jewish academic, my main Jewish experiences have been informal study in a havurah and in people’s homes in Boston, Jerusalem and Cleveland.
But then I realize that Kaunfer isn’t speaking for all Jews. When he says “Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values,” I think that “even” is too much of a concession to the (strictly biological) continuity fallacy. I’ve seen in this work how many intermarried Jews and their partners become more engaged with Jewish life because they have to do something different in order to raise Jewish children. (Not that there’s only one experience of interfaith marriage, of course.) I agree that who we marry isn’t the sole determinant of what we have to pass down as Jewish religion and culture to our children–it’s only one piece. That “even” sticks out, a little pebble in my shoe.
Further, though, for all of us who love a good group of people sitting around with texts and dictionaries arguing over what some words mean, there are people who aren’t so interested in words. They want to bake bread, or dance, or do something with their hands. They like to sing or they like the gossip in the hallway or the kitchen of the synagogue. (Well, who doesn’t? That’s where you find out everything important.) I remember when my havurah did a lot of “movement midrash,” dance interpretations of the Torah portion. I found it uncomfortable and felt silly trying to do it, but it drew in some people who became very committed Jews–because they liked to dance.
In essence, I agree with Kaunfer–we shouldn’t dumb down Judaism, we need more empowered Jewish education and the best way to make sure that we have a very stimulating Jewish life is to take it into our own hands. I like Kaunfer’s model of the do-in-yourself, small, modular minyan; that’s how I’ve chosen to live. I’m just not ready to believe that everyone in the Jewish community has the same background, needs, learning style or tastes as I do.
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