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Today’s 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 doesn’t 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 “answer” to the intermarriage “problem,” 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 “owing to intermarriage,” even though the Pew Report found increasing numbers of children of intermarried parents identifying as Jews and even though “owing to” 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 “we must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversion” 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 couldn’t 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 they’re 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, it’s OK with these leaders if the children of intermarried parents participate in their immersive programs – 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. I’m 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 “to 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.”
I’m 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 can’t overcome fundamental deep-seated antipathy toward intermarriage, we’re going to see not vitality, but decline.
There are many in the Jewish community, including Steven M. Cohen in his recent response in The Forward’s Seesaw column, who put forward a two-pronged approach to sustain the American Jewish community in light of the high rate of intermarriage. First, they encourage in-marriage. But when that fails, they encourage interfaith families to engage Jewishly and raise their children within the Jewish community.
But just listen to that language – when in-marriage “fails.” Those are my words, but it is certainly the message I received from many in the Jewish community. Those who take this two-pronged approach are in essence saying that interfaith marriage is second best, so it is not a far leap for interfaith families to feel like second class citizens. That is not a good starting point if you want interfaith families to engage Jewishly.
Would we feel comfortable telling our children to only marry within their race? Or within their socio-economic class? Of course, religion is not exactly the same as race or class. It also makes a difference if you are in the minority or the privileged position. But it is worth asking ourselves how these questions make us feel.
I understand where many Jews are coming from in wanting to preserve a minority population. But what is it we are really trying to preserve? For me, I want to perpetuate Jewish practice, history, belief, thought, food, culture, and community. There are so many treasured memories I look back on from my childhood and want to pass on to my son. Because all of these elements of Judaism have beautiful things to offer the world and the individuals who hold them dear.
So let’s focus on that. Instead of encouraging in-marriage, let’s encourage young adults to find a life partner who shares their values and who will help them celebrate and live their Jewishness. Someone who is open to sharing in and contributing to the life of the Jewish community whether or not that person is Jewish themselves. That is what I found in my husband who actively helps me build a Jewish home, but who is not Jewish himself.
From that starting point, it is easy to move to step two of encouraging interfaith families to engage Jewishly. In fact, from this starting point, we can be sharing the same message with all new families and welcoming everyone on even footing.
Steven M. Cohen and Rabbi Joy Levitt have written an extremely important op-ed for JTA: “If You Marry a Jew, You’re One of Us.” For the past 14 years, we at InterfaithFamily have been advocating for Jews to welcome, embrace and fully include interfaith couples and families into Jewish life and community. We have always maintained that the attitudes Jews have toward intermarriage need to change from negative or ambivalent, to seeing the potential for positive Jewish engagement by interfaith families.
It is wonderfully affirming to now hear Jewish leaders like Levitt, the brilliantly successful director of the JCC in Manhattan, and Cohen – until recently one of the most vociferous critics of intermarriage – espouse the same views.
The crux of their essay (I am quoting what I feel are the most important points):
We know that where both parents identify as Jews, nearly all their children identify as Jews as well. And when only one parent sees himself/herself as Jewish, only a minority of their children grow up as Jews. Aside from raising the inmarriage rate, how can we create more households where both partners see themselves as part of the Jewish people?
One answer is for all of us to change the way we think of, and treat, those who love and marry our children, family members and friends. Basically we should agree and fully internalize the idea: If you marry a Jew, you’re fully part of our community until proven otherwise.
Born Jews would undergo a subtle but critical shift in the way they relate to family members and friends not born Jewish. It would mean fully including them in holiday practices, life-cycle ceremonies, and Jewishly centered social action and political activities.
[F]or those who choose to be part of our community without formal conversion — who come to the Passover seder and drive their children to Hebrew school, who sit shiva with us, or who bring their sons into the community at a brit milah, who shep naches at their daughters’ bat mitzvah and who go to Israel on vacation — we say welcome. It’s a pleasure to know you. Come learn. You’re one of us if you want to be.
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Many parents avoid being divided on issues big and small with our kids. We particularly try to present a united front about discipline, decision making and responsibilities and attempt to not get triangulated. But what about God? Do we need to believe the same thing, or at least tell our kids we do? My partner and I don’t like lying to our kids…about anything. We don’t tell them things they can’t yet handle developmentally, but we don’t avoid the tough subjects when they ask.
So what about God? We are unique in that both of our work lives involve religion. Part of her job is teaching the history of Judaism and Christianity to college students. She is enticed by the history, texts and language of religion but her role is to deconstruct it. I am a rabbi who is drawn to the spiritual and I look for ways to see the divine in everyday life. Even though we both highly value religion and its study, we have very different approaches to theology.
So what do we tell the kids? We have decided that as we don’t lie to them about other things, we will not lie to them about God. I read them books about God, encourage thanking God before meals, and provide as many ways as I can for them to envision what God might be. I share with them my own theological struggles. My partner tells them that she believes humans created the idea of God and when talking about the Bible she refers to God as a character in the story. In all of these conversations, I make sure that our kids know that debating God doesn’t have anything to do with them being or feeling Jewish. Since there are myriad ways Jews define ourselves, belief is certainly not a litmus test. In fact, about half of American Jews report doubting God’s existence.
Why have my partner and I rejected the idea that we must agree theologically, or that we should pretend that we do?
First, no two individuals are alike in their beliefs. Why would we expect two parents to share a theological view? Sure, some do, or their visions of the divine are close enough to present one shared story to their children. But the great majority do not. It is not only parents from different religious backgrounds who struggle with this question. Two Jewish, Catholic or Muslim parents can easily hold radically differing theological views and most traditions hold within them disparate views of divinity as well.
Second, we believe that parents shouldn’t refrain from teaching kids what they think just because they don’t agree with one another. Children are far more capable of handling complexity than we imagine. I encourage parents to talk it through between them first, and then commence sharing with their children what they think about the big questions and even how views evolve and change over time. By doing so, we will be teaching them personal integrity, authenticity, and the Jewish values of intellectual and theological struggle. I think children can handle that complexity. What is tougher to handle is a lack of clarity when parents haven’t figured out how they are going to talk to them about their differences.
On a related note, I don’t believe that kids will be confused if they are exposed to many ways to think about God. For me, this goes beyond what they are learning from us as parents. My theological views often differ from their religious school teachers’ views. I wouldn’t expect them to talk about God exactly as I would. I engage my children about those views as well and ask them what they think. In our home, we talk about God and gender. We sometimes change liturgical language to fit our ideological or theological beliefs, such as excluding language in our Friday night Kiddush about Jews being the chosen people. I don’t believe that God acts in human history (as in God being our salvation in a battle). There are times when I disagree with how a movie, book or teacher presents God and I welcome those opportunities to refine how we communicate about belief as a family.
Last and most important, I want to teach my children about telling the truth. The value of trust is higher for me and my partner than anything else. If they find out someday that we misrepresented ourselves, they could question other things we had said along the way as well. So we tell them our viewpoints, and we fess up when we aren’t sure.
The result? At this moment, our kids approach God differently. Our 7-year-old made up a joke that God was walking around one day and the big bang blew him up. He says he doesn’t believe in God and often has much to say about the subject. Our 9-year-old thinks God exists but struggles with the Shema prayer because he really likes the polytheism of the Greek myths. Under the sukkah recently, we got into a philosophical discussion with them about whether there was some kind of matter present before the universe came into being or if it was born out of nothingness. Everyone had an opinion and struggled with the question. We are pleased. We aren’t teaching them what to believe, but they know how the two of us feel about God. We are teaching them how to think about their relationship to the world around them and giving them language to speak about it.
For further reading…
Children’s theological books:
God’s Paintbrush and God In-Between by Sandy Sasso
Because Nothing Looks Like God and Where is God? by Karen Kushner and Lawrence Kushner
The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles
Right around Passover, there was some prominent coverage in the secular press about intermarriage due to the publication of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part and reviews in the Wall Street Journal (where she has been a religion writer) and the New York Times.
I’ve ordered the book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I thought Riley’s suggestion that religious communities “strike a delicate balance” in their approach to interfaith families, as described in the Wall Street Journal review, was itself fairly balanced:
I’m concerned about the emphasis on the last point — that interfaith marriage leads young adults “away from the fold.” According to the Wall Street Journal review, Riley says that questions about child-raising can “tear at the fabric of a marriage,” that interfaith families are on average less likely to be happy, that the partners lose steadiness of observance and belief, that children are more likely to reject their parents’ faiths, and that couples are more likely to divorce.
The divorce point makes me question the basis for Riley’s observations. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post, Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast, about a story Riley wrote for the Washington Post. Here’s what I said back then:
Susan Katz Miller, in her blog On Being Both, also finds Riley’s stance on intermarriage to be “strangely pessimistic” and finds her “gloom and doom” not supported by Riley’s own data.
I also question the basis of Riley’s observations because at InterfaithFamily we have published many narratives and heard from so many interfaith couples that they have resolved questions about child-raising, have children who learn to love Jewish practice, and who themselves strengthened observance and belief — and are quite happy in their marriage. People like the brother of Stanley Fish, author of the review in the New York Times, who describes the lengths which their father went to break up his brother’s relationship and concludes:
The New York Times review suggests that Riley isn’t against intermarriage — she’s in an interfaith and inter-racial marriage that has worked:
That’s balanced advice, too — although again, I’m concerned that “bed of thorns” overdoes it.
Back in February, my colleague, Rebecca, blogged about a debate between two Reform rabbinic students: should the Reform rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College, accept students who are intermarried?Two current students at HUC in New York, argued opposing sides in Reform Judaism Magazine. Rebecca summaried, “Daniel Kirzane, a current rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York, says yes. His classmate, Brandon Bernstein, says no.”
Fast forward, and the debate is still raging. Not surprising, Kirzane has faced some attacks from classmates and rabbis, both Reform and those from other denominations.
The most recent comes from Rabbi Mark Miller, who shared his opinion in The Times Of Israel. He starts by explaining that there are two remaining lines that “cannot be crossed in Reform Judaism”:
He continues, explaining that while Kirzane’s position is grounded in the Reform movement’s outreach and inclusion of interfaith couples and their families, Miller actually sees that as the demise of Reform Judaism.
Ah, yes, intermarriage as the great assault on Judaism. We’ve seen this argument many times before. I don’t think there’s anything I can say here that would dissuade Miller. But I do think it’s a shame that he believes that “intermarriage usually occurs between people whose faith is not central to their lives, but an afterthought.” For some couples, sure, but for all? Couldn’t it also be argued that when Jews marry other Jews oftentimes their faith is an afterthought? How else would we explain the many Jewish families not marking Shabbat or celebrating holidays, not giving their children any sort of Jewish education? I’d rather see faith as an afterthought than no thought at all. But I digress.
What do you think of Miller’s arguments against admitting to rabbinical school those students who have intermarried?
Edited to add: As so quickly pointed out on our Facebook wall about this blog post, “Why are these the only two lines? Can a Reform Jew legitimately commit murder?” Other lines are listed too. And the idea of officiating weddings on Shabbat is called in too. Respond with your thoughts on Facebook, or here!
Crossposted to Jewschool.
This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).
This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).
Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”
As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?
Almost three years ago, in April 2010, I complimented the Forward’s Editor-at-Large, for an essay he wrote about a family member’s bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue. I said then,
Unfortunately, Goldberg’s current essay, How Many American Jews Are There?, makes me wonder about progress. In an otherwise fine and thoughtful discussion of Jewish population estimates, Goldberg mentions “certain new discoveries that are changing our understanding of how Jews view themselves that aren’t fully absorbed into survey methodology.” One of them is, “there’s a growing, still unmeasured tendency among children of intermarriage to identify as Jewish” — something that could certainly be taken as very positive.
Sadly, however, Goldberg adds: “perhaps because it’s fashionable in Washington and Hollywood.” Why the gratuitous slap at children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish? Does Goldberg think his cousin, who impressed him so much at his bar mitzvah three years ago, identifies as Jewish because it’s fashionable?
This follows on the Forward’s Editor-in-Chief, Jane Eisner, writing For 2013, A Marriage Agenda. In an otherwise fine and thoughtful discussion of marriage and birth rates, she gratuitously mentions being “haunted” by whether marriage-age children will marry other Jews — again with no recognition whatsoever of the potential for positive Jewish engagement that could result.
I would hope that leading Jewish journalists like Goldberg and Eisner would like to contribute to attracting young interfaith couples to engage in Jewish life and community. Making gratuitous negative comments about intermarriage doesn’t help.
Over on the Forward, there’s an interesting opinion piece on intermarriage that responds to Jane Eisner’s concerns. She wrote:
I found this interesting to read, given that I hear the conversations about intermarriage all the time. Of course, I work here at InterfaithFamily. But even when working at other Jewish organizations, intermarriage was a topic frequently discussed (and ususally from the perspective of “how are we going to prevent this second Holocaust?!?”). And, yes, these discussions happened amongst individuals who would be labeled as “liberal.”
And that’s where things get interesting. Enter Dan Brotman’s response, also in the Forward.
A great point to start us off. He continues,
Just read the whole response. He makes excellent points that mirror the mission and work of InterfaithFamily.
Wondering what we’re up to in Philadelphia? The Jewish Exponent has a new article highlighting our new branch, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, and the resources we bring to the community.
Starting with marriage as the entry point to the article, they write:
We certainly hope we are!
But wait, there’s not just this one article. The Jewish Exponent has a few other columns of interest to our readers.
There’s an interesting editorial piece on welcoming interfaith couples/families. It starts:
Then there’s an opinion column from a rabbi, addressing how synagogues and rabbis might welcome (“embrace”) intermarried couples and their families.
And the last that I’ll mention here is a really lovely column by a woman (“I had cornered the market on non-Jewish credentials. I was a card-carrying member of the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. I was a practicing Episcopalian.”) who married a Jewish man, the “son of Holocaust survivors.” She goes on to talk about how she found many wonderfully welcoming places and individuals in the Jewish community, people who shaped her life — and her family’s. Definitely worth a read.