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 Changewho 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.

What Moved Me in the New Year

  

I hope your Jewish holidays this year were good. Despite all of the bad news in the world, my holidays were excellent. They ended with the first grade consecration of my oldest grandchild on erev Simchat Torah at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts. The rabbi had all of the children present at the service sit cross-legged on both sides of the center aisle of the sanctuary and rolled out two Torah scrolls with the children holding them off the floor while the end of one and the beginning of the other were read; the look of awe on my grandson’s face was wonderful to see. I wish all of the people who say that the grandchildren and children of interfaith marriages won’t be Jewish could have seen it.

My holidays began on an equal high, and that’s saying a lot. Rabbi Allison Berry of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts gave a truly wonderful sermon, The View From Mt. Sinai – Building Our Inclusive Community. Recalling Jewish tradition that the people gathered at Mt. Sinai included generations past and future, she said “I was at Mt. Sinai. I was there, and so were you.” She said “all of us were part of the … chain of tradition.” And then she made explicit who she was talking about, mentioning first by name the parents and children of an interfaith family (before mentioning her adopted Korean-American sister, an upcoming bat mitzvah who uses sign language, seniors and transgender people). Noting that nearly half of the Temple’s religious school students come from interfaith families, she said “you are part of us. We appreciate the many ways you expand what it means to be Jewish…. We are honored you have chosen this community.”

Rabbi Berry is a rabbi who “gets it.” I wish the critics of interfaith marriage who say the Jewish community is already plenty welcoming to interfaith families would take this to heart: “I’ve learned from experience there is a tremendous difference between being a welcoming community and being a community that actually includes. We need to allow our perceptions and assumptions to be challenged. We need to be vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable. We need to be aware that language has the power to include or exclude.”

I was especially moved when Rabbi Berry quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as saying “The Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah [Torah scroll], and each of us is one of its letters.” While Rabbi Sacks is a brilliant Jewish scholar and teacher, he is a harsh critic of interfaith marriage; one of his many books, Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren, suggests he would be surprised that my grandson was just consecrated, and I don’t think he would say there are letters in the Torah for partners of an interfaith marriage from different faith traditions, or for the children of mothers who are not Jewish. But Rabbi Berry does. She said that “Somewhere embedded on the scrolls behind me, in our ark, is the letter containing” the story of the interfaith family she first mentioned;

Together these letters of Torah construct our history and our future. They are an expression of our joys, sorrows, and moments of transcendence. When we leave people out or do not see those asking to be allowed in, we lose letters vital to the integrity of our Torah. When we build sacred, inclusive community we stand together as envisioned at Sinai….

We need more rabbis like Rabbi Berry whose deep-seated attitude is that there are letters in the Torah not just for every Jew, but for every Jewishly-engaged person.

It was quiet on the intermarriage front during the holidays. I was very pleased to be quoted in a great JTA story about How Mark Zuckerberg Is Embracing His Judaism; I had said in my last blog post, after Zuckerberg’s Facebook post that he had given his grandfather’s Kiddush cup to his daughter, that “The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.” I’d like to think there are letters in the Torah for Priscilla Chan and her children.

Before the holidays there was a lot of news about developments in the Conservative movement. The leaders of the movement just today came out with a statement that affirms the movement’s invitation to partners from different faith traditions to convert, its prohibition on rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples, and its desire to honor and include them:

It is a blessing that growing numbers of non-Jews are willing to see us as colleagues, neighbors, friends and even family…. We joyously include them and their families in the lives of our congregations and organizations, in our teaching of Torah, in our worship, in our social action. And we find ways to celebrate their marriage and love that honors their choice not to merge their identity with the people Israel by being present as pastors before the wedding, as rabbinic guides and companions after the wedding and as loving friends during the wedding period.

There is a lot that is positive in this language. But with all respect, the stated reasoning behind the officiation prohibition – “Honoring the integrity of both partners in a wedding, and for the sake of deepening faithful Jewish living” – is misguided, in my view. The partner from a different faith tradition who wants a rabbi to officiate isn’t dishonoring his or her integrity, and I believe it is clear that officiation leads to more faithful Jewish living, not less. They are saying, in effect, that that partner doesn’t have a letter in the Torah unless he or she converts.

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

The Conservative Officiation Debate Continues

  

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

The wedding officiation debate continues

The media buzz about Conservative rabbis and officiation at weddings of interfaith couples has slowed, but there has been important commentary in the past three weeks.

The rabbis of the Jewish Emergent Network – certainly among the most progressive younger rabbis in the country – expressed solidarity with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie for raising important issues, expressing “hope that in the months ahead, the focus will shift from internal Jewish politics to the ways in which contemporary Jewish spiritual leadership, as it looks both to the past and the future, will respond to the increasingly fluid boundaries between the categories of Jew and non-Jew.”

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle had an excellent summary of the Conservative officiation debate in an article about varying opinions of local Conservative rabbis. One rabbi said the Rabbinical Assembly should only change its prohibition if there is an adequate halachic basis to do so; one said if the RA changed its stance he still wouldn’t officiate. The article reports that there is a petition being circulated to affirm the prohibition and that the RA has a Blue Ribbon Commission examining the boundaries of the prohibition – not overturning it, but defining what it means.

I was disturbed to read Steven Cohen quoted as criticizing the Cohen Center’s research showing a strong association between having a rabbi officiate and interfaith couples’ later joining synagogues and raising their children Jewish. Cohen apparently says the study provides no evidence of impact and just shows that people who seek a rabbi are more Jewishly engaged. I think the Cohen Center’s interpretation makes much more sense: “Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.”

The article reports that Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, who said he would officiate for interfaith couples if the RA changed its prohibition, found a way to participate in a wedding without overtly violating it: while under the chuppah he delivered the “wedding talk,” while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony. He said, “I believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own children…. And I have to say, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t perform your wedding.’ They never get over it.” He continued, and I think this makes a great deal of sense,

We are not going to have a better chance of a Jewish future if we reject our children. There is no chance then. The more welcoming we are, the better chance we have for a Jewish future. I do believe this is a matter of life and death for our movement. I believe intermarriage is not leading our kids away from Judaism. I believe it is our reaction to intermarriage that is pushing them away.

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who was expelled by the RA because he started to officiate for interfaith couples, says that the leadership of the Conservative movement is at odds with its members. “The Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary may adamantly reject the idea that Conservative rabbis should officiate at interfaith marriages; the Conservative constituency overwhelmingly believes they should.”

Intermarriage is one of the clearest manifestations of the consequences of the gap between rabbis and constituents, which I believe is at the core of the crisis in Conservative Judaism today. But the fundamental issue is that while leadership still perceives Conservative Judaism as a halachic movement, its constituents do not. For them, Judaism is not about law. It is a matter of the heart and spirit. It is about intent, feeling, and identity. And when it comes to intermarriage, it is about love. It is not about adherence to technical standards that are arcane and burdensome, that lack transparency, and make life harder and more difficult. Like most non-Orthodox Jews, members of Conservative synagogues are seeking religious communities that enable them to celebrate the milestones of their life with joy and meaning, and which help them shoulder the burdens of a challenging society with greater confidence and purpose.

But where they seek peace, Conservative Judaism offers Halacha. Where they yearn for fulfillment, they are given the message that they are Jewishly inauthentic. Where they crave acceptance, they are judged.

The New Jersey Jewish News had an interesting essay by Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptmann, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a grandchild growing up in an interfaith home. She says that as of now, she won’t officiate for interfaith couples, “but I wish I could.” (The essay is about what she says is the more important question of how to get the children of intermarriage to grow up Jewish, and about the key role that grandparents can play.)

Finally, there was a great article interviewing Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, who outlined six tips to make both sides feel comfortable while respecting their traditions. She explains she made the difficult decision to co-officiate because “there have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.”

More Shifting Ground

  

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

choices

It’s been busy the past two weeks. As Shmuel Rosner just pointed out, since his original article a month ago, “The volume of writing on Jewish interfaith marriage in America is high.”

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 “arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.”

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 “arguing that sticking with in-marriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. In-marriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis officiating – disapprove of insistence on Jewish couples and relationships.”

That is a false equivalency, in my view. There can’t be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesn’t 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. It’s the insistence that there is only one right way that’s the problem.

Rosner says a Conservative rabbi who refers to “the naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they build” is right. How anyone can hold that position after the Cohen Center’s latest research showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites an article by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to “actively” encourage conversion, and an interesting “descriptive, not opinionated” analysis by Emma Green in the Atlantic.)

The Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment on eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says “If the person I walk down the aisle with isn’t Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?” and “72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is … about Jewish apathy.” Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer “holds outdated views that intermarriage… divorce from the Jewish community,” while another says “this resentment of people in interfaith relationships has got to stop.”

Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journalsays:

But I know — we all know — too many wonderful intermarried couples. They continue to serve the community as volunteers, funders, activists. They raise children who go on to practice Judaism, embody its values and contribute to the Jewish community and the world. They succeed at being Jewish far, far better than any number of “in-married” Jewish couples who stay uncurious and uninvolved, whose biggest contribution to Jewish life was paying the rabbi who married them.

This truth puts rabbis and movements who resist intermarriage in the same bind as many were before acknowledging same-sex marriage. How do you exclude a committed, loving constituency, willing to belong and contribute to Jewish life, from meaningful Jewish rituals? Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?

The ground has shifted on this issue, and something tells me we’re about to find the answer.

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 “turned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.” If she hadn’t, “that could have been the end of Judaism for me… I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.” This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that I’ve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesn’t officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:

If they do choose a non-Jewish partner, and try to find a rabbi to marry them, will they be accepted and counseled warmly and openly? Will their interest in honoring their Jewish heritage with a Jewish-style wedding be respected and appreciated? Or will they be made to feel that they are being judged for marrying the person with whom they have fallen in love, who happens not to be Jewish? Will they feel unwelcome in the very synagogues and communities which raised them?

An outstanding example of a cantor who “gets it” is Erik Contzius, who says “Let’s Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’” He used to not officiate, but “Coming to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.”

I can almost guarantee that a couple of divergent religions will not affiliate, identify, or become otherwise involved with the Jewish community if they are turned away and thus invalidated by Jewish clergy who tell them that they will not officiate at their wedding.

Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi, reports that he “encountered fierce opposition” to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and “ adopting a posture of radical hospitality,” but steadfastly believes that “providing a space that caters to every Jew’s spiritual needs — even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith — is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.”

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“:

So when the Conservative Movement grapples publicly with whether or not their rabbis should maybe consider a way to possibly be less than fully rejectionist, the arguments for inclusion are what we [secular humanists] have been saying and living for 40 years. We who have celebrated interfaith and intercultural families for a generation are pleased to have company, but like the woman in a board meeting whose ideas are overlooked until repeated by a man, we are not amazed. Better late than never, and better now than later, and still better to recognize that you are late to the party.

 

Today the Reform Movement trumpets its “audacious hospitality”, the Conservative Movement will accept non-Jews as members (with limited privileges), and intermarriage-friendly rabbis are easily found online at InterfaithFamily.com. The one piece missing in most of this dialogue is, “we’re sorry, we were wrong.” For the thousands of couples, families, and children pushed away by Jewish communal shortsightedness over the past decades, some teshuva (repentance) might also be helpful.

Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman” (an edited version of a longer piece on Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on

…a dishonest sociology…, promulgated by a handful of academicians who’ve been at it for decades…. Shmuel Rosner, a reporter who contributed to this latest effort, displays this confusion when he writes, “interfaith marriage leads to eventual assimilation.” Such purposeful oversimplification is not sociology, it’s smear. “Assimilation” is not the story we’ve seen for huge swaths of intermarried households. Intermarried Jews are involved in all Jewish denominations and most organizations. There are literally hundreds of thousands of exceptions to the supposed rule.

Golin argues that theism is the problem – 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 “When there’s no magical ‘Jewish gene’ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?” 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 his 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 Rabbinate’s claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leaders’ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew “not Jewish enough.” I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: “policing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of who’s doing it.”

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 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.

Late 2016 Round-up: Major Convening, Major Research… What’s Next?

  

To Name or Not to Name: That is the Question

  
Jewish baby naming

During a recent baby naming ceremony that Moser officiated, the uncle (left) and father (right) help wrap the mother in a tallis

Who should receive a Hebrew name? What requirements should be met? Should a Hebrew name only come with a stated commitment from the child’s parents to raise their child Jewishly? What if one of the parents is not Jewish? What if the child might not be raised as a Jew?

I have thought deeply about these questions in recent weeks as opportunities to officiate at baby-namings for interfaith families presented themselves.

I spoke with rabbis, friends and family members, and heard a variety of passionate points of view. In the process, I became passionate about what the answers are for me. I’m curious to know what you think.

The spirit of the naming ceremony is to bring a child into the covenant of the Jewish people. It includes a commitment from parents to raise their child as a Jew. For most people, this is an unbendable requirement. I understand, and respect, that point of view, but I have come to disagree.

A baby-naming ceremony is an opportunity for a family to connect with Judaism during a powerful moment in that family’s life. It is a chance for us, as a Jewish community, to be an open, welcoming door. The family may only want to put their baby’s toe through the door for now, but that is enough to keep the door open. This is a defining moment, and it will set the tone for their interest in future engagement.

After the ceremony, the name will forever belong to the child. It may never be thought of again, or it might possess the power to open the door to Judaism further. It could be a catalyst for curiosity. The name may, one day, whisper in the child’s ear, “Go find out more about these people you are a part of.”

To me, a Hebrew name is a good seed planted.

What do you think?

Who Will Marry Us?

  
Rabbi Mychal officiating a wedding

Rabbi Mychal officiates an interfaith wedding in the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California

You have chosen the date, the place, the guest list. But who will officiate at your ceremony? A family member? Friend? Clergy person? Justice of the peace? A celebrant?

Asking friends or relatives to officiate at wedding ceremonies is a relatively recent phenomenon with numbers rising in just the last decade with the advent of online ordination. If you have a friend or relative whom you believe to be the right officiant for you, this can be a very meaningful option. But if you are still deciding, consider a clergy person or other trained celebrant to lead you through this sacred moment in your life.

When you are standing before your family and friends exchanging vows, your life changes. You take on a new status, a new legal category. A clergy person or celebrant is trained to usher you through this life-shifting moment. We strive to deepen your experience—not only on the day—but throughout the process. By the time you take your places in front of your loved ones, you will hopefully see yourselves as participating in a timeless ritual, connected to couples who have taken this step throughout the ages.

Many couples shy away from inviting a religious leader to officiate at their ceremonies because they don’t consider themselves to be religious or spiritual. But regardless of your religiosity, a wedding ceremony is sacred, out of the ordinary. It marks one of the most significant choices you will ever make—and that is not to be taken lightly. The person leading your ceremony needs to know how to create sacred space, a practice clergy people hone over many years. We set the mood through words and song, and explain rituals in a way that is steeped in tradition and relevant to you. We come prepared to lead you through a process that is individualized for you, yet we aren’t starting from scratch. In fact, we have a storehouse of great material to work with.

As part of our seminary training, we learn about the essence of ritual and how rites like this one carry us safely through liminal, life-changing moments (regardless of how religious you are). We create meaningful ceremonies that flow seamlessly and get to the heart of why you are making this life choice.  A friend or relative is often just figuring this out for the first time (they often call our offices seeking guidance, reassurance and outlines!). You might need someone who can put you and others at ease amidst wedding tensions rather than trying to keep their own nerves under wraps. We honor the generational nature of weddings, acknowledging the process of each family member as roles, relationships and names shift.

Rabbi Mychal officiating a wedding

Rabbi Mychal officiates an interfaith wedding in the California Redwoods

If you aren’t sure how religion will play into your lives, this is precisely the time to figure that out. A clergy person can help you discern how religious or spiritual life can deepen your relationship and what is authentic to you both. With so many options today, choosing a clergy person is not the fallback that it once was. But if you come from a religious or cultural tradition, this is an opportunity to explore its meaning for you as an adult and avail yourself of the accumulated wisdom that tradition holds.

Many couples are concerned that a clergy person will not be respectful, accepting or inclusive of their non-traditional religious views.  In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people may assume that there are no clergy people who understand and celebrate their relationships or identities.  In both of these cases, there are clergy people who would be thrilled to work with you, many of whom might share your worldview and even your identities.  It may not be the pastor of your youth, but taking the time to seek out someone who is aligned with your values and commitments could have a profound and even healing impact on your lives.

Interfaith couples often worry that they don’t yet know what elements of their respective traditions they will bring into their homes, so how can they decide what kind of clergy person should officiate?  Meeting with potential officiants can help you sort out what makes sense for you and it might even be a great way to introduce one another to some of the wisdom and depth each of your traditions hold.  Your wedding ceremony should reflect the choices you are going to make in your home and for your family. Don’t put off this important decision until the next major milestone. Officiants listed through InterfaithFamily’s officiation service are sensitive to these issues and will honor both of your backgrounds.

If you are not at all connected to any religious group, find a secular celebrant. They are trained to make your day sacred and meaningful, but often not from a religious perspective. Many are experienced in leading you through the important counseling work as well. But if you have some inkling of a religious or cultural background, I urge you to interview some clergy people. You aren’t the first couple to ask for a ceremony that is deeply meaningful without God language, or to want certain rituals while leaving out others. Many clergy people are prepared to engage with you about what matters most, and figure out how to create something that feels authentic to you.

Although the day of your ceremony is momentous, the most important part of your wedding… is not actually the wedding. It’s the work you do leading up to it. You are taking this step because you are marking that your lives will now be intertwined. Clergy people are trained in pastoral counseling and guide people through deep, spiritual work focusing on communication, finances, intimacy, religion, interfaith issues and end of life decisions. We lead you through the most profound spiritual questions so you’re prepared. Your friend probably can’t do this for you. If you do choose someone who is not trained in this area, sign up for couples counseling before the wedding. In the words of one couple, “We were both told on the wedding day that we seemed very calm. That is because we were completely ready.”

The expertise you get with a clergy person usually does come with a cost. But compared to what a typical wedding couple budgets for flowers and music at the party, it’s not much considering that it is most likely what you will most remember from the day. The officiant does not charge a fee merely for the time of the wedding ceremony but for the knowledge, time preparing a unique ceremony and counseling. For many, this is the core of their work and livelihood. If you are truly on a shoestring budget, be honest with potential officiants. Many clergy people are able to slide their scale for you or refer you to a colleague if you ask.

I often hear couples express that they don’t want a stranger to marry them and that they want the ceremony to feel personal. Believe me, this person won’t be a stranger after you have talked through the deepest questions, concerns and joys in your life. No, they didn’t know you when you were 5. But that isn’t necessarily what you need to prepare yourselves for a lifelong commitment.

Have questions? Email me at mychalc@interfaithfamily.com.

My Mission to Welcome

  

Jewish Hindu wedding ceremony

This blog post originally appeared at Rituallwell.org

One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi and the director of InterfaithFamily/DC is working with couples to prepare for their wedding. I meet with a lot of couples that come from diverse backgrounds and no two couples are the same. Each is a unique set of individuals bringing together their life experience, their families, and their hopes for the future.

Whatever kind of wedding they have in mind, I tell them that my goal is to create a ceremony together, a ritual which we can personalize so that their wedding reflects who they are as individuals and as a couple and their intentions for their life together. On the simplest level, a ritual helps us mark sacred time and helps us to be present in the moment. And no matter what the individuals’ backgrounds, I want their wedding to be one of many beautiful, meaningful, and accessible Jewish rituals in their lives.

Jewish Hindu weddingWhen I teach couples about the components of the Jewish wedding ceremony, it’s often the first time they have learned about the meanings behind the rituals. And as with most things in Judaism, there are often multiple explanations for why a tradition came into practice. That fact alone is empowering for many people to learn that it’s ok that some explanations resonate and some don’t.

The mission statement of Hebrew College, where I was ordained, says that “Judaism, at its best, is a creative, intellectual and spiritual encounter among the individual, the community and the received tradition.” As rabbinical students and rabbis, we are “encouraged and empowered to see ourselves as both inheritors and innovators—active participants in the unfolding story of the Jewish people.” My role as a rabbi is to transmit a Judaism that is expansive enough to be inclusive and meaningful.

Our Talmud class on weddings had a big impact on me. We read ancient ketubot (wedding contracts) that varied in content and formulation, written hundreds of years before the standard Orthodox ketubah came into wide spread use and thousands of years before the myriad of modern-day options. We also learned about other kinds of marriage and partnership documents and rituals. Historical and cultural variations in practices around the documents, huppah (canopy), wedding garments, and rituals objects have long encouraged couples to personalize and beautify the ceremony.

The history of Jewish creativity around ritual has been a wonderful way to see the current trends in reclaiming, modifying, and forming new rituals as an inherent part of Jewish tradition and practice. In my understanding, creativity and inclusion lead to an enriched, enlivened, and more beautiful Judaism. In my role as officiant and m’saderet kiddushin (one who orders wedding ceremony), my hope is that there will be a balance of tradition and creativity. I hope that all couples I work with, especially interfaith couples, will be empowered to make Jewish rituals and practices their own, thus opening the doorway for their engagement in Jewish life on their terms, in a way that is meaningful to them.

This November, congregations and Jewish organizations around the country are celebrating Interfaith Family Month. Some may choose to offer a blessing or do a special program. InterfaithFamily has created some lovely readings and blessings. But I also want to encourage other clergy and Jewish leaders to think about offering something from their heart. One way to do this is to think about the gifts that interfaith couples and families have given you and your community.

And with that in mind, I want to say thank you to the interfaith couples I’ve worked with for their willingness to engage with Judaism. Thank you to the individuals who want to honor and include their non-Jewish partners or family members so that we can create more inclusive rituals and more expansive experiences of Judaism. I want to say thank you to the individuals who want to incorporate rituals from other cultures who have showed me that there are more similarities than there are differences. I am grateful to work for an organization that has supported me to embrace interfaith couples and families and for our partnership with organizations like Ritualwell who enrich the work that I do.

No Defense for Lord Sinderby

  
The Sinderbys

Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE

In Downton Abbey, Lord Sinderby is the disapproving Jewish father who opposes his son’s interfaith marriage to Rose. In Lord Sinderby’s time, there were virtually no opportunities for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life, unless Rose were to convert.

Fortunately, we don’t live in that time anymore. Today, many interfaith families can live active Jewish lives – and many do. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements consider children to be Jewish if there is one Jewish parent (regardless of whether it is the mother or father) and they are raised as Jews. They can be married by a rabbi and join a synagogue.

While Jane Eisner defends Lord Sinderby (“Defending Lord Sinderby,” The Forward, March 1, 2015), I cannot. Too many Jewish professionals and communities still think that Jews are “throwing it all away”, to paraphrase Lord Sinderby’s words, when they marry someone who isn’t Jewish. With a different approach, however, we can see interfaith relationships as an opportunity to invite more people in to the Jewish community. Rose, although naïve, is already eager to learn about the faith. And wouldn’t it be beneficial to have Lord Grantham as an ally?

I do agree with Eisner on a few points, though. We do need to ask the difficult questions, not only of interfaith families, but also of Jewish institutions. If we want to ask the spouse who wasn’t raised Jewish “to commit to doing her part to carry on a precious tradition,” as Eisner says, then can’t we ask Jewish institutions to welcome them and provide opportunities for learning and community?

What would happen if we shifted the focus from who someone marries to helping all families – interfaith and in-married – find their place in the Jewish community? I bet we would see a myriad of beautiful Jewish traditions being passed on to the next generation. That points to a bright Jewish future indeed.