Couples are marrying with or without us. Let’s help.

  

couple

The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. I’ve seen articles that talk about “caving on intermarriage” and “coming to terms with it” and “addressing the problem.” This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.

It’s not about caving on interfaith marriage.
It’s not about settling or coming to terms with it.
It’s not an issue.
It’s not a problem.

By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What we’re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.

We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. It’s not a disease. It’s not a shameful act. It’s a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. It’s about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.

When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, “Thanks for doing the work that I’m not allowed to do.”

So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues don’t deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that “We accept you and your partner” and also, “I cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.” These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.

One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this couple—a Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnostic—they said, “We never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now we’re excited to have a rabbi.” I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing “No, you’re not welcome here” either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.

Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: “My fiancé is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didn’t want a rabbi because he was worried he’d feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.”

I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.

I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.

Families are complicated and most people’s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.

Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesn’t matter.  People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she won’t marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.

Let’s help.

Photo credit: Tom The Photographer

A Razzie Award for the Jewish Media?

  

I’ve been thinking about starting a “Razzie Award” — referring to raspberries, referring to the negative sound of “blowing a raspberry,” sort of like “worst of” awards — for the Jewish media. The latest contender would be “Branding Judaism”
by Mayrav Saar in Orange County Jewish Life
.

What particularly bothers me about this one is that Saar quotes a podcast by Archie Gottesman, who happens to be my cousin, and a supporter of InterfaithFamily, saying: “If you don’t want to see your grandchildren being baptized someday, the time to think about it is now.” Suggesting that Gottesman was sending a “don’t intermarry” message, Saar says:

I’ve been to church weddings of people with Jewish surnames. I’ve sent Christmas presents to children whose grandmothers lit menorahs. And we all know the stats: 47% of Jews marry non-Jews. When they have kids only 28% of them are raised Jewish and only 10% of those Jewish kids go on to marry Jews themselves. So nearly all children of intermarriage are lost to the Jewish people.

Aside from the outdated statistics, the assumption that receiving Christmas presents makes children of intermarried parents not Jewish, and the flat wrong statement that “nearly all children of intermarriage are lost,” Saar is wrong about Gottesman’s message. Archie’s December, 2010 JTA op-ed, New Ten Commandments for the Jewish People, includes this:

1. Jewish grandchildren
You want them, right? Then raise your children to be Jewish. Children do not decide religion; parents do. No matter who you marry, decide ahead of time that the kids will be brought up as Jews. Wishy-washy will get your children joining a church or just not considering themselves Jewish. If the thought of being invited to your grandchild’s baptism troubles you, do something about it now. [emphasis mine]

Like I said about two other Razzie Award contenders recently, I would hope that Jewish media writers would like to contribute to attracting young interfaith couples to engage in Jewish life and community. Making gratuitous negative comments about intermarriage doesn’t help.