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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that âarguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.â
Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that âarguing that sticking withÂ in-marriageÂ weakens us is self-fulfilling.Â In-marriageÂ wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis officiating â disapprove of insistence onÂ JewishÂ couples and relationships.â
That is a false equivalency, in my view. There canât be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesnât work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. Itâs the insistence that there is only one right way thatâs the problem.
Rosner says aÂ Conservative rabbiÂ who refers to âthe naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they buildâ is right. How anyone can hold that position after theÂ Cohen Centerâs latest researchÂ showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites anÂ article by Roberta Rosenthal KwallÂ that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to âactivelyâ encourage conversion, and an interesting âdescriptive, not opinionatedâÂ analysis by Emma GreenÂ in the Atlantic.)
TheÂ Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment onÂ eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says âIf the person I walk down the aisle with isnât Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?â and â72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is âŠ about Jewish apathy.â Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer âholds outdated views that intermarriageâŠ divorce
Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journal,Â says:
One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and âturned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.â If she hadnât, âthat could have been the end of Judaism for meâŠ I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.â This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that Iâve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesnât officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:
An outstanding example of a cantor who âgets itâ is Erik Contzius, who says “Letâs Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’”Â He used to not officiate, but âComing to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.â
Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi,Â reportsÂ that he âencountered fierce oppositionâ to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and â adopting a posture of radical hospitality,â but steadfastly believes that âproviding a space that caters to every Jewâs spiritual needs â even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith â is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.â
Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:
Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman”Â (an edited version of a longer piece onÂ Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on
Golin argues that theism is the problem â most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that âWhen thereâs no magical âJewish geneâ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?â But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.
In hisÂ second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinateâs claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leadersâ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew ânot Jewish enough.â I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: âpolicing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of whoâs doing it.â
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. Iâve seen articles that talk about âcaving on intermarriageâ and âcoming to terms with itâ and âaddressing the problem.â This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.
By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What weâre 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. Itâs not a disease. Itâs not a shameful act. Itâs a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. Itâs 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, âThanks for doing the work that Iâm not allowed to do.â
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 donât 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 âWe accept you and your partnerâ and also, âI cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.â 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 coupleâa Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnosticâthey said, âWe never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now weâre excited to have a rabbi.â I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing âNo, youâre not welcome hereâ 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: âMy fiancĂ© is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didnât want a rabbi because he was worried heâd 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.â
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 peopleâs 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, doesnât matter.Â People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she wonât 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.
Photo credit: Tom The Photographer
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.
We are glad to report that the Conservative movement is making anÂ important step toward inclusion. In an official moveÂ on March 1, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism voted 94-8 to allow individual congregations to permit people who are not Jewish to be members.Â Some Conservative synagogues, like many in the Bay Area, have already welcomed those who are not Jewish as members of their congregations.
In a recent article, Religion News Service stated that there were Conservative synagogues that considered those who were not Jewish as members through family memberships. With this official vote, individuals can now be welcomed as members without being part of a family membership.
There is speculation that this could pave the way for the Conservative rabbis’ associationÂ to allow rabbis to officiateÂ at interfaith weddings in the future.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.
First, I was so pleased to learn that Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.
Thatâs right â an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: âAt RomemuÂ theÂ diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.âÂ I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the âStrangers No Moreâ program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.
But thereâs more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.
Second, and about the same time, the JTA ran an important and I think related story by Ben Sales, Outside the Synagogue, Intermarried are Forming Community With Each Other. He writes that interfaith couples are finding Jewish connection through a range of initiatives aimed at intermarried or unaffiliated couples, mentioning Honeymoon Israel and Circles of Welcome at the JCC Manhattan, among others.
Julie Wiener just wrote a great short history of the intermarriage debate for MyJewishLearning.com â one of her subtitles is âFrom Taboo to Commonplaceâ â that alludes to interfaith families finding community in new and alternative forms of organization when discussing resources for interfaith families.
As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says âIt was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. Thereâs a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.â One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds âto ask questions in a safe space.â
Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources âbecause of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.â (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)
Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that âWhen it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selvesâŠ in America that means being inclusive of [those who are not Jewish] and other friends.â I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61 percent of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)
Rubel also says that interfaith couples are âuncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]âŠ.â â and thatâs more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.
The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, âare not meant for [those who are not Jewish]â or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say âwe are not meant for [those who are not Jewish];â Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.
I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are âthe people who fit the demographic of the active groupâ â referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,
It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not âmeant for Jewsâ that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not âmeant for Jewsâ but instead are âmeant forâ Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are âfor Jewsâ but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionistsâ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.
Thereâs an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews wonât remain forever separate, and sees her program âas a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.â She hopes her program wonât need to exist in the future.
But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: âthese are the people who get usâŠ [t]his is our community.â The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.
Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemuâs benefit, âAwaken Your Voice,â on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success â it deserves to be.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Itâs been quiet on the intermarriage front for a while; it feels like most peopleâs attention is understandably in the political realm these days. But in the past two weeks there has been interesting news and comment on intermarriage in the more traditional, conservative parts of the Jewish community.
When people talk about intermarriage, for example about the 72 percent rate of intermarriage since 2000 among non-Orthodox Jews, the general understanding is that intermarriage isnât much of a phenomenon in the Orthodox world. A fascinating blog post on intermarriage in the Orthodox world, The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox Community, suggests that that may not be the case. The blogâs creator, Alan Brill, estimates that 7-8 percent of young Modern Orthodox Jews are intermarried, and says that âordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic,âŠâ He also says âcases of full Orthodox conversion âŠ are now quite common.â
Most of the blog post is a guest post by âRuvie,â a Modern Orthodox man, writing about his feelings about his sonâs marriage to someone who was not Jewish â feelings that arenât that different from those of many non-Orthodox Jews.
Ruvie says he is aware of five interfaith marriages in the past year and a half among children of his observant Modern Orthodox friends. âAll parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt.â âThis is something new and growing in the MO community.â He refers to estimates of 5 to 20 percent intermarriage rates in the Orthodox world.
Ruvie complains that there is a taboo about talking about intermarriage that no longer exists in other controversial topics in Orthodoxy, like homosexuality and people abandoning Orthodoxy:
Ruvie describes the reactions of his friends and himself:
It is very clear that Ruvieâs son may have left Modern Orthodoxy but has not left Jewish life. The officiating rabbi recommended that the young woman take an introduction to Judaism course and during the course she decided to undergo a Conservative conversion. Before the wedding the son asked the father to put up a mezuzah at his apartment; after the wedding the son asked his mother where he could ritually immerse their dishes.
It is also very clear that Ruvie prioritizes his relationship with ÂÂÂhis son:
Ruvieâs conclusion: âThere is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Letâs begin now.â
The Conservative movement currently restricts synagogue membership to Jews. The recent news, described in a JTA article, “Conservative movement proposes allowing non-jews as synagogue members,” is that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the association of Conservative synagogues) is asking the synagogues to vote in March to allow individual synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to those who are not Jewish. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of USCJ, said that âthe current standards donât make sense in a world where many intermarried couples are active participants in Conservative congregationsâ and that âthe language of âonly Jews can be members of a synagogueâ makes it seem like [someone who is not Jewish] who is connected is not a member of that community.â
Rabbi Wernick also said that the USCJ is not changing the definition of who counts as Jewish: âWhat weâre trying to do with this is distinguish between community and covenant.â But Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Menâs Clubs and the most outspoken Conservative leader on intermarriage issues, recently created a pamphlet in which he essentially recommends that the Conservative movement adopt patrilineal descent. “The Elephant in the Room: Conservative Judaism and the Patrilineal Question.”
It will be interesting to see movement in the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative parts of the community toward more acceptance and welcoming of interfaith families.
There was also a piece on eJewishPhilanthropy about Hebrew Collegeâs new certificate program in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement, and a positive comment by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in the Forward.
The following blog post has been reprinted with permission from Edmund Case, Founder of InterfaithFamily: edmundcase.com.
I think itâs safe to say that we would all have to agree that an awful lot has happened in the past two months. That includes developments in the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I summarize here.
On October 10, eJewishPhilanthropy published my review of a demographic study of British Jews that I found to be unfortunately negative about intermarriage, given trends indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice that I thought supported increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.
The October 26 Interfaith Opportunity Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish communityâs agenda. eJewishPhilanthropy published Jodi Brombergâs and my report on new understandings of how to influence engagement, new efforts to engage interfaith families, and the need for an attitudinal ânarrative shiftâ about intermarriage discussed at the Summit.
The Cohen Center at Brandeis on the day of the Summit released a very important study on the impact of rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. My op-ed, Are Rabbis Who Refuse to Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?, was published in the Forward and eJewishPhilanthropy. I said that it is no longer tenable for rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is âbad for the Jews,â when the new research shows strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues.
The Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem released an important report in November on definitions of Jewishness in a time of fluid identity. In my blog post, what I found promising was the apparent consensus, among Â over 700 Jewish leaders from Israel, the US and other countries, on the need to be welcoming to interfaith couples. However, I noted a conflict with an accompanying desire to maintain community standards that express a preference for in-marriage.
In November CJP released the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis. In my blog post, I note that the Study confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of CJPâs welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that recognizes multiple patterns of engagement and supports programmatic efforts targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.
We are clearly in a time of increased interest in the field, with new convenings and research supporting increased efforts. The question that remains is how to make a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families a reality.
I had a very interesting day yesterday.
It started with a phone interview with a graduate student in journalism writing a story about Jewish-Muslim relationships. She had a Jewish parent and a Muslim parent herself, and was involved with a group of young Jewish-Muslim couples. She told me that some of them had decided to raise their children with Judaism and some hadnât decided. I told her that at InterfaithFamily we are always interested in what influences some interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life or not.
She said she thought that Jews were âexclusivistâ and told me that one couple in the group approached a rabbi, I think she said about conversion, and the rabbi made a comment about Arabs and breeding that was so derogatory I donât want to repeat it here. She couldnât see it, but my jaw dropped, it was such an insulting and ignorant comment.
But sadly I shouldnât have been surprised. I immediately thought of a good friend in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Jewish herself but active in her Reform synagogue, who reported last year that a woman at the synagogue said in her presence âwe Jews are dumbing ourselves down by intermarrying.â My friend â herself at the highest level of anyoneâs intelligence scale — was so shocked at how insulting the comment was that she couldnât immediately respond. And then I thought of a survey that a major city federation asked me to analyze a year or two ago in which one couple said that at a Reform synagogue someone who learned they were interfaith said âmaybe people like you would be more comfortableâ at some other synagogue. Itâs hard to believe that these comments are true â yet they keep on happening.
After the phone call I went to a terrific event at the Brown-RISD Hillel co-sponsored by the Genesis Prize, Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel that featured Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky talking about their Jewish journeys. I sat next to a man who asked me what I did and then told me his story. He grew up Orthodox, had a child with his first wife, got divorced, and then married a woman who is not Jewish. His wife doesnât intend to convert but she keeps a strictly kosher home and his grandchildren call her âbubbe.â But after he re-married his synagogue told him he couldnât have an aliyah (recite blessings before and after the Torah is read) any longer, so he left the synagogue.
This morning the Good Morning America team was talking about new variations of the Barbie doll and one of the correspondents said that her young children âdonât see colorâ meaning they donât distinguish other children based on race. Iâm not sure how widespread it is that people see people of other races as ânormal.â I do think that young children see different constellations of parents as ânormal;â I recently asked my 5-year-old grandson if one of âJoeâsâ two mothers wasnât a police officer, and I am quite sure he doesnât think twice about his classmates who have two mothers or two fathers.
All of this made me wonder if Jews will ever see ânon-Jewsâ and Jews marrying ânon-Jewsâ as ânormal.â At InterfaithFamily we try very hard not to use the term ânon-Jewâ which is why I put it in quotes; itâs off-putting and people donât identify as ânon-â anything. We prefer to say âpartners from different faith traditions.â But we keep on hearing people say ânon-Jewâ and itâs very use appears to support viewing the other as not ânormalâ â an Arab who breeds âŠ or ânon-Jewsâ who arenât smart â as well as penalizing Jews who marry them.
The last thing that happened yesterday was hearing Michael Douglas tell his story again. As he said last night, and in a great story in the Jewish Week last week, Michael Douglas was told his whole life that he wasnât Jewish because his mother wasnât Jewish. When the people from the Genesis Prize came to him and said they wanted to award him the Genesis Prize as an outstanding Jew, he said âthis is a mistake, Iâm not Jewish.â But his son has gotten the family interested, and became bar mitzvah, and they traveled to Israel, and the Genesis Prize people very wisely recognized the importance of making a statement that the Jewish community needs to recognize and welcome people who are the children of intermarriage or are intermarried themselves but engaging in Jewish life.
Dare I say that the Genesis Prize being awarded to Michael Douglas is a statement that Jews need to not only recognize and welcome, but normalize intermarriage, the children of intermarriage, Jews who intermarry and most important, the partners from different faith traditions married to Jews? It was a ray of hope to end a very interesting day.
Itâs the time of year when the days are short, the nights are dark, and the joyful music and decorations abound.Â Wherever we go we hear celebratory music and greetings of âmerryâ and âhappy.â I usually love this time of the year with its crisp air, sweet smells, and joyful song. But this year I am having trouble getting into that spirit.
This year Iâm scared.
This year I want to be joyful and I want to spread the cheer and I want to celebrateâbut Iâm sad. These few months have been rough for my community, my people, my country and my Israel. Every day for the past few months Iâve seen stories of terror in Israel. People are walking up to strangers, pulling knives out of pockets and purses and stabbing them. Others are driving cars onto sidewalks into crowds, killing and injuring several people at a time.
In San Bernadino, a town not far from where I live, a town where my grandparents are buried, where my friends live and work, two people entered a regional center and murdered 14 human beings who were gathered to celebrate the winter holidays.
In the Jewish Journal last week a man published an article publicly humiliating a local Rabbi for his transgender identification, calling this rabbi and his congregation an embarrassment to Judaism, desecrating our Torah by bullying someone in its name.
And today, a public figure stated that all Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.
I see all of this in the newspaper, on the news and in my Facebook feed. And then when I recycle the paper, turn off the TV, and put away my phone, I see my two toddlers. They know nothing of these horrific and saddening acts. They see that Iâm upset so they come to sit in my lap.
All my kids know is love.
In their 17 months they have received nothing but love from everyone they meet. They donât yet know the desperation and hate that drives someone to stab a stranger or murder a group of people. They donât know the fear that leads someone to bully and humiliate another. And they donât yet know why a public figure stating that he would disallow an entire religious community from entering a country would be triggering and scary.
All they know is love. And I want to keep it that way for as long as possible. I want this time of year to be magical and special and joyful for my kids, and for myself too. So we spent the afternoon decorating the house for Hanukkah. And we took a walk to see the neighborâs decorations, saying âhiâ to everyone on our way. And when we put them to bed we gave them extra kisses and extra cuddles and read one extra story. Because the more love we give them, the more love they will give others, and some days it feels like thatâs all we can do.
So Iâm scared and sad, but Iâm also hopeful. I light the candles of my hanukkiah and sing joyful songs with my family. I wish people a âmerryâ and âhappyâ holiday on the street and in the store. I sign petitions and write letters to my representatives on issues I think are important. And I give love. Itâs a scary world, but the story of Hanukkah teaches us that hope can win over fear. That light and love can win over darkness.
Todayâs Statement on Jewish Vitality, advocating strategic responses to respond to the challenges of the Jewish future, is extremely disheartening for what it says and what it doesnât say about interfaith families.
Twenty-five years after continuity efforts began, it is still the case that most of our Jewish thought leaders, exemplified by those who signed on to the Statement, still think that intermarriage is bad, still think that conversion is the âanswerâ to the intermarriage âproblem,â and still oppose programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families.
The Statement says that many children of non-Orthodox Jews will not identify as Jewish when they grow up âowing to intermarriage,â even though the Pew Report found increasing numbers of children of intermarried parents identifying as Jews and even though âowing toâ sounds a lot like saying that intermarriage causes children to not be raised as Jews but all of the surveys show correlation at best and not causation.
The Statement touts Jewish education programs, PJ Library, camps, trips to Israel, youth groups, etc. because they raise the in-marriage rate, instead of because they are critically important for and successful at strengthening Jewish engagement.
Yes, the Statement acknowledges that large numbers of Jews will intermarry, but immediately says âwe must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversionâ and advocates for more conversion-oriented courses.
If Jewish leaders wanted to drive away from Jewish engagement the 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who intermarried since 2000, and the majority of college-age Jews who have one Jewish parent, they couldnât do so more effectively than by espousing the response to intermarriage expressed in the Statement. Interfaith couples do not want to participate in a community that describes their relationships as something to be prevented, let alone tells one partner that theyâre welcome if they convert but not as they are.
This fundamental distaste for intermarriage is manifested by the complete absence of any support in the Statement for programs that are targeted expressly at recruiting, attracting and embracing interfaith families. Sure, itâs OK with these leaders if the children of intermarried parents participate in their immersive programs â but G-d forbid that the community do anything that explicitly states, and demonstrates with programmatic responses, that Jews want interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
All of the programmatic steps outlined in the Statement are important and should be supported. But if they are marketed as leading to in-marriage and conversion, and if they are not accompanied by programs for interfaith families, they will amount to just circling the wagons around a continuing diminishing group.
Fortunately, there are other Jewish thought leaders who recognize the importance of efforts to engage interfaith families. Iâm thinking of the Genesis Prize Fund which boldly chose to honor Michael Douglas, and now in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network is offering a matching grant initiative âto encourage the creation of a culture of welcoming and acceptance within the Jewish community of intermarried couples, their families, and individuals who come from these families [and] to energize and strengthen organizations working in this field and to encourage the creation of new programs in that area.â
Iâm thinking of federations and family foundations and community foundations in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington DC who provide support for InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects in each of those cities, where a full-time rabbi and a project manager build trusted advisor relationships with interfaith couples and families (including by helping them find officiants for life cycle events) and offer a range of Jewish learning and community building experiences for young couples seeking help deciding what to do about religious traditions in their lives and young interfaith families seeking help raising their children with Judaism.
It would have been so smart for the signatories of the Statement to eliminate their anti-intermarriage tone and to include programs for interfaith families among their list of efforts deserving support. I long for the day when the more enlightened view becomes predominant. Because if Jews and Jewish leaders canât overcome fundamental deep-seated antipathy toward intermarriage, weâre going to see not vitality, but decline.