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This article was cross-posted on HuffingtonPost.com.
As the editorial director at an organization that works toward the inclusion of interfaith couples and families in Jewish life, I read and hear a lot of commentary on the future of Judaism and how interfaith families fit into it. Over and over I hear or read Jewish professionals and rabbis say how much they would like to welcomeÂ non-Jews into the community.
Say for a minute you were thinking deeply about joining an exclusive tennis club. You’ve been wanting to become a tennis player for years and you’re finally taking the steps toward that goal. You found a club that alleges to be welcoming and in need of newcomers, but when you tell them you haven’t learned to play yet, and that you might continue to play basketball even after you join, they suddenly don’t seem as welcoming as you expected. The club members and leadership refer over and over to you as a non-tennis player, making you feel not so much like you will ever be a member of the club but a visitor.
Obviously “joining” Judaism is a much weightier life choice than playing tennis. Perhaps the analogy of “non-man” to describe a woman hits closer to home? Non-meat eater? In any case, the Jewish community’s decision making around welcoming new people into its fold should not be treated as trivial. But assuming you have decided that you do in fact want to welcome newcomers who are not Jewish to explore Jewish life within your organization (or family or neighborhood)–stand by that decision.
If you want interfaith couples and children of intermarriage to feel welcomed by your community I applaud you on your efforts. If you want that aspiration to translate to reality, start by thinking about the person you’re trying to welcome every time you speak on the topic or write language of welcoming or interact with this audience. How will your messages be perceived by that person? Will they hear that you have a policy of welcoming? Or will they also hear that you want them to be there?
These are two different things.
Step one: You intend to welcome.
Step two: You actually welcome.
Let’s start by speaking in terms of who someone is, not in terms of who someone is not. Respect the audience you seek to invite into your fold by treating them as equals to everyone else in your fold. If someone feels that they are being tolerated and not celebrated, they may not walk through your door. Or if they do walk in, they may turn around and leave.
There isn’t a good word for non-Jew. But you can use the words “partner who is not Jewish” or “partner of another faith.”
It’s not just about this one compound noun. It’s about speaking to interfaith families the way you would Jewish-Jewish families. It’s about deciding whether they are your future and if you answer yes, treating them like it.
As the new year approaches, Iâve been thinking back over the past yearâparticularly about certain terms Iâve heard used in 2014 that bother me. Following are three terms I hope to hear less of in 2015.
NON-JEW: While ânon-Jewâ is an easy short-hand term and itâs clear what it means, this term can be offensive. Most people prefer to be described in the positive as what they ARE, rather than in the negative as what theyâre NOT. For example, I identify as a âfemale,â not a ânon-male;â and in my family Iâm a âwife and mother,â not a ânon-husband and non-father.â At InterfaithFamily, weâre concerned that when people in the Jewish community talk about ânon-Jewsâ in interfaith relationships, it sends the messageâeven if itâs interpreted subconsciouslyâthat the person who isnât Jewish is somehow âless thanâ by defining that person with an emphasis on his or her âoutsiderâ status.
Granted, not using the term ânon-Jewâ can sometimes cause us to have to do some linguistic gymnastics, but I think itâs better to sound a little wordy and awkward than to potentially offend someone. So far, I donât know of an ideal term to describe someone who isnât Jewish. One suggestion Iâve heard is PDF (âperson of a different faithâ), but that term has its own limitations in that the partner who isnât Jewish may not identify as part of another religious group, or may be an atheist of agnostic who doesnât have a âfaith.â Do you have any suggestions?
And for the record, Iâd love to never again hear terms like shiksa and goy. These terms, which simply mean, respectively, âa woman who is not Jewishâ and âpeople who are not Jewish,â are too often used by Jews in a pejorative manner.
HALF-JEW: I used to really dislike this term no matter what the context in which it was used. But now Iâve come to see a difference between using it to define oneself and using it to define someone else. Before I worked for InterfaithFamily, if I were teaching a religious school class at a synagogue and a boy with one Jewish parent told me that he was âhalf-Jewishâ I would probably have said something like:Â âYouâre fully Jewish. Just because one of your parents isnât Jewish doesnât make you âhalf-Jewish.ââ (If the boy were older, I may even have joked: âwhich half, left or right?â) But as my colleague Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, pointed out to me when I came to work here, people have the right to self-identify, and if someone identifies as âhalf-Jewishâ itâs not my place to tell him otherwise.
While I may have a tendency to want the boy in my religious school class to feel âwholeâ and to know that he is âauthenticallyâ Jewish even if one of his parents isnât Jewish, identity is complex. There are many things that a child (or, for that matter, an adult) could mean when he says that heâs âhalf-Jewish.â Perhaps thatâs his way of saying that he loves and identifies strongly with his parent who is not Jewish and that parentâs family. Itâs not my place to tell him that the way he self-identifies is wrong.
Yet while I now wouldnât âcorrectâ someone who identifies herself as âhalf-Jewishâ because of her right to identify as she chooses, I do find it offensive when people label others as âhalf-Jewish.âÂ In myâadmittedly liberalâunderstanding of Judaism, a person with a Jewish parent is Jewish, regardless of the gender of her Jewish parent. (I recognize that this view, which is consistent with the views of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, is inconsistent with traditional Halacha (Jewish law), and is not accepted by the Conservative Movement and Orthodox Jews, who require that a childâs mother must be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish without being converted.) And such a person is as âfully Jewishâ as any person with two Jewish parents. Labelling someone a âhalf-Jewâ can be very hurtful to them (see, for example, Zach Cohenâs blog âDonât Call Me a Half-Jewâ) and risks alienating children in interfaith families from their Jewish roots.
Which brings me to the third term I donât likeâŚ
PATRILINEAL JEW: Traditional Jewish law requires that a personâs mother be Jewish in order for him to be Jewish without converting. But for years now the Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Movements have recognized âpatrilineal descentâ (i.e. a child with one Jewish parent, regardless of the parentâs gender, is Jewish so long as certain other criteria are met). CLICK HERE for an explanation of âWho is a Jew?â
Nobody ever refers to someone whose mother is Jewish and whose father isnât Jewish as a âmatrilineal Jewââsuch a person is simply a âJew.â Similarly, those of us who accept patrilineal descent shouldnât refer to someone whose father is Jewish (or who is being raised by two fathers, for that matter) as a âpatrilineal Jew.â The modifier âpatrilinealâ is unnecessary, and implies that having a Jewish father, as opposed to a Jewish mother, somehow puts one into a different, less authentic, category of Jewishness.
My hope for 2015 is that we can all spend more time focusing on our own religious and spiritual livesâŚand a LOT less time worrying about defining everyone elseâs.
Are there terms that youâd like to leave behind in 2014? Iâd love to hear what they are.