Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
A version of this blog post was reprinted in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and can be read here.
These words, spoken by the young widow Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, are among the most well known and most powerful words in the Bible. They express Ruth’s commitment to Naomi—and to Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God. With this declaration, Ruth the Moabite cast her lot with the lot of the Jewish people, and she recognized the God of Israel as her God.
Often Ruth is spoken of as the first convert to Judaism. Of course Ruth’s “conversion” wasn’t like the conversions of today. Ruth didn’t attend an Introduction to Judaism class (I can’t imagine that any such classes were offered in Moab!); she didn’t appear before a Beit Din (a rabbinic court); and she didn’t immerse herself in the mikveh (ritual bath). And in fact, throughout the Book of Ruth, even after Ruth makes her declaration of commitment to Naomi, the people of Israel and the God of Israel, Ruth is constantly referred to as “the Moabite,” reminding us, the readers, that Ruth was still seen as an “outsider.”
Even if we are to accept that Ruth converted to Judaism (at a time long before conversion as we now know it), the timing of Ruth’s “conversion” is noteworthy. Having lost her husband and two sons, Machlon (Ruth’s husband) and Chilion (who was married to another Moabite woman, Orpah), while living in Moab, Naomi was preparing to head back to Israel. She told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families, and Orpah followed her instructions. Ruth, however, clung to Naomi, and when Naomi told her to “return to her people and her gods” as Orpah had done, Ruth responded: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go….”
By the time Ruth made her famous declaration to Naomi, Ruth’s Israelite husband was already deceased. This was after Ruth’s marriage, not before it. This means that Ruth’s marriage to Machlon, which lasted about ten years, was an interfaith marriage! I can only imagine that Ruth’s great love for Naomi was based on the fact that throughout the period of the marriage and beyond Naomi accepted Ruth for who she was—making Ruth feel valued and loved.
So often today I hear a Jewish mother lament when her son marries a woman who isn’t Jewish: “She’s a lovely girl. If ONLY she were Jewish…” I can only imagine how this must make the daughter-in-law feel: that she’s not quite good enough, that she’s second class. That’s not how Naomi treated Ruth. While the text may go out of its way to call her “Ruth the Moabite,” to Naomi she was simply “Ruth”: beloved daughter-in-law. And what a remarkable mother-in-law Naomi must have been for Ruth to want to leave her own land and her own people to return to Naomi’s homeland with her after Machlon had died.
Just imagine what it would be like today if Jewish parents—and the Jewish community as a whole—could be as non-judgmental and accepting of their children’s interfaith marriages as Naomi must have been of Machlon’s marriage to Ruth. Surely some of the children-in-law, like Ruth, would fall in love with their extended Jewish family and the Jewish people and religion, and choose after a period of time to become Jewish. We see this happen all of the time: Someone who’s had a Jewish partner for a number of years converting after truly knowing what it means to be Jewish. (As a rabbi, I would much prefer that someone wait to convert until they’re sure that it’s right for them, rather than converting to appease a prospective in-law or just make things “easier” when getting married. A conversion just to make someone else happy seems to me to be “empty” and insincere.)
Of course even if parents-in-law and the Jewish community are non-judgmental and accepting of interfaith marriages, not every partner in an interfaith marriage who didn’t grow up Jewish is going to convert. Some people won’t convert because they still practice another religion, and others will decide—for a variety of reasons—that conversion to Judaism isn’t for them. And that’s OK too! Our community needs to honor those who’ve chosen to marry Jews, but who haven’t chosen Judaism for themselves—just as Naomi showed Ruth respect throughout the time that she was married to Machlon. As Naomi realized throughout the marriage, it wasn’t her place to tell her daughter-in-law how to live her life or what choices she should make. Naomi loved Ruth for who she WAS—not for what she WANTED Ruth to be.
At the end of the Book of Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David. Ruth “the Moabite” who was in an interfaith marriage to Machlon is the great-grandmother of David—not only a great King of Israel, but the progenitor of the Messiah.
Soon it will be Shavuot. It’s customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. It’s quite appropriate to read the story of a woman who demonstrated her loyalty to Judaism on the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. As Shavuot approaches, I will celebrate Ruth, who wasn’t raised Jewish, from our Jewish past. And I will also celebrate all of those people in our Jewish present who weren’t raised Jewish: those who’ve chosen to convert to Judaism as well as those who’ve chosen to join their lives to the Jewish community in less formal ways (by marrying Jews, by raising Jewish children and by participating in the life of the Jewish community). All of them, like Ruth before them, help us to ensure the Jewish future.
Today in The Jewish Daily Forward, an article was published by Nathan Guttman: “Does Intermarriage Drive Young Jews Away from Israel?” The article suggests that yes, being the product of an intermarriage is a major factor in young Jews’ feeling alienated from Israel. That, along with liberal political views.
I’ll let you read the article yourself for the statistics these conclusions were drawn from, but suffice it to say, whether or not children of intermarriage are more likely to feel alienated from Israel, let’s do a better job at engaging interfaith families in Judaism, including Israel.
Let’s make our synagogues welcoming, let’s not turn away interfaith couples from the community, let’s encourage children of interfaith families to take advantage of trips to Israel. On that front, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia is now registering interfaith families for our subsidized trip to Israel in Dec. 2014-Jan. 2015. Learn more here.
Many people want to be welcoming but don’t necessarily know exactly how to provide the welcoming learning environment for interfaith families and kids. In this essay, I’ll provide some tips on how to engage kids from interfaith homes in classrooms and how to handle potentially awkward situations.
1. Respect the family. Keep your own opinion out of the conversation. The children need to feel validated, not uncomfortable. Be prepared for anything. Families come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of dynamics. Some families may be raising their children in “both” religions or incorporate varying degrees of each religion. Grandparents may not be supportive. Students may believe in Santa Claus. Relatives may celebrate Kwanza. There are infinite ways to be a family.
2. Respect the other parent’s religion. If a child refers to another holiday celebration with relatives who are not Jewish:
a. Listen. A key element of listening is eye contact. Pay attention to what the student is telling you about a religious experience. If you can relate their story to something Jewish, great. If not, just listen attentively. If you don’t have time to talk because class is starting, say that you would love to talk in greater detail after class and then make sure to offer to talk to them after class.
b. Ask questions. “Did you enjoy going to church?” If you end the conversation abruptly because you are uncomfortable or in a rush, the student may think that he said something wrong. Asking questions (within time constraints of the class) shows that you are interested.
c. Support. Your response of support will enable the student to be happy about their experience. Students should never feel bad if they participated in a family event that wasn’t Jewish. Responses like: “That is great that you had fun with your cousins. You are lucky to be exposed to so many different types of religion.”
d. Pay attention to all of the students. The whole class is potentially listening to your conversation about interfaith issues. The students will take their cues from you and it is key to set an example of support. If you hear another student give a negative response (or make a face) be sure to provide a supportive environment to all of the students. The student that provides a negative response should get the cue that in this classroom, we don’t judge other people but accept one another. It is a mitzvah to support your whole family.
3. Truth. What if a child says: “My cousins told me that the Jews killed Jesus—but I told them, I didn’t.” This is simply not true but it is a long stated myth. This is a good opportunity to set the record straight by saying. 1) That’s not true. 2) The Romans killed Jesus. 3) That was a long time ago and Romans are predominantly Christian now. Please remember that what you teach the students now is what they will remember their entire life. This opportunity to teach not only this student, but the whole class, will be important for defending against anti-Semitic comments in the future.
4. Unconditional support. Families and children need encouragement. Religious school for many families is not a requirement like a high school diploma so a negative interaction can be catastrophic. Families frequently switch to another synagogue if they have a bad experience in Hebrew school. In some cases, families will leave Jewish life completely. The burden is on you (not easy, is it?!). Make it fun, be welcoming, be supportive and teach the students as much as you can.
5. Adaptation. Whenever you can, point out ways in which interfaith families have been important to the Jewish culture. The story of Ruth (an ancestress of King David), a Moabite woman who married a Jewish man and identified with the Jewish people and God, that we read on Shavuot is a great example. The story of Esther, who married a King who wasn’t Jewish and saved the Jews, which read on Purim, is another example.
6. Instill pride. Jessica is part Jewish, Cherokee, Irish and Italian. She is special and unlike any other human being. She should finish her year in your class feeling happy that she has learned some stories, some songs, some traditions, some Hebrew, some of the commandments, and wants to come back next year! Jessica should be proud to be Jessica. Interfaith kids should NEVER be made to feel like anything less than ALL JEWISH when they are in your classroom. All students should be proud of their differences and proud of their Judaism. People will participate in a culture where they feel like they are part of the “home team.” You should never call a child “half-Jewish” or their parent a “goy” and should try to stay away from saying “non-Jew” as well. If a child is attending religious school, then that child is Jewish.
7. Turn it around. There will be many awkward situations throughout your career. Take the opportunity to turn the situation into a “teachable moment.” Many families may not be enlightened about how to be welcoming. You will set the example for the kids about how to be proud and accepting of people’s differences, not only regarding religion but other differences as well.
You are an educator and your role in the development of your students is meaningful and powerful. On behalf of Jewish families in America, thank you for your efforts.
Passover is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays and many Jewish families have some type of Passover seder, but preparing to host a seder can be intimidating. This is true whether or not you grew up Jewish—and, as I can personally attest, even if you’re a rabbi!
Seder means “order” in Hebrew, and there is a set order for how the seder is to proceed, set forth in the haggadah. As an avid haggadah collector, I can tell you that there are LOTS of different haggadot to choose from—or you may put one together yourself. But even once you’ve selected a haggadah, if you have kids coming to your seder there’s the added pressure of wanting them to be engaged throughout the evening.
Here are some things that have worked for me in the past:
MAD LIBS, COLORING PAGES, ETC.: One year, when the kids arrived at my seder, I gave them a Passover Mad Libs game. Playing Mad Libs is a great way to keep kids busy before the seder starts (especially if you don’t want them running all over your house!) or after they have eaten their meal—which we all know takes kids a lot less time than it takes adults. If there are kids who are too young for Mad Libs, you can give them Passover coloring pages and crayons to keep them occupied (Google “Passover Coloring Pages” and you’ll find lots of pages you can print for free) or if you happen to be using a digital haggadah, like this one from JewishBoston.com, the younger set can enjoy this fun online seder matching game. Coloring in their own Passover placemats (which you can buy in many grocery stores, Judaica shops or online—or make your own) kept my kids happy and quiet during seders when they were little, as did kids’ haggadot that they could color in.
PASSOVER GRANOLA: Several years ago, I attended a pre-Passover workshop led by Noam Zion, one of the authors of A Different Night, The Family Participation Haggadah. Zion suggested that when the seder begins, the host should give each guest a bag of granola, which they can nosh on so they won’t be hungry and anxious for the meal, and thus will be more engaged during the pre-meal part of the seder, which is the majority of the haggadah. So when we all sat down, I gave everyone, adults as well as children, a bag filled with raisins, nuts, and Kosher for Passover chocolate chips and marshmallows. I explained that just as our Israelite ancestors went on a long journey after leaving Egypt, we too would have a “journey” before we began our meal, and the bag was filled with some food to keep us nourished along the way. (I also promised my guests that our journey would be a lot shorter than 40 years!). Another fun thing about the Passover granola was that my daughter, who was four at the time, had a great time preparing all of the bags with me before our guests arrived.
BINGO: One of the biggest hits was when I used a website to make a Passover Bingo game for my younger guests. The squares on the Bingo game had phrases such as: “I recited the four questions,” “I drank the second cup of wine/juice,” “I asked a question” and “I tasted maror.” I gave each kid a small cup of raisins, and told them to put a raisin on a square once they had done what was written in the square. This kept the kids engaged throughout the evening—nobody wanted to miss doing something and not be able to fill in that square on their card. I recently found a similar Passover Bingo game online here.
QUESTIONS! QUESTIONS! AND MORE QUESTIONS!: Any good seder involves a lot more than just the Four Questions in the haggadah. Originally, the items on the seder plate and many of the Passover rituals were meant to spark questions. Your seder won’t be nearly as rewarding if you just read through the haggadah without taking time for questions and discussion. Here are some fun ways to incorporate questions into your seder:
Ask lots of questions: Before the seder, go to a Dollar Store or party store and buy a bunch of cheap little toys to use as prizes. Throughout the seder, stop to ask questions about the story and celebration of Passover. Whoever answers the question correctly gets a prize. You’ll probably find that the adults like to play along and show off their knowledge as much as the kids do. Or better yet…
Have your guests ask the questions: Encourage questioning by giving out a prize every time someone asks a question. Then let someone else answer the question—and they can get a prize too.
Put questions under everyone’s plates: One year I put an index card with a Passover-related question on it under each plate before everyone arrived at my seder. Some of the questions were serious (e.g., “If you could invite anyone to a seder, who would it be and why?”) while others were more light-hearted (e.g., “If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your life, would you rather it be matzah or bitter herbs?”). At different points throughout the seder, I would randomly pick a person and ask them to take the index card out from under their plate (no peeking at the card until you’re called on!), read their question and answer it.
Advanced planning is key to a successful seder. But that being said, once your planning is finished and your guests arrive, do your best to relax and enjoy!
Are there things you’ve done at a seder in the past that have been fun for kids and kept them engaged? What are you planning for this year?
…that you are involved with someone of another religion (race, culture or gender)
By Wendy Armon and Joycellen Young Auritt Ph.D.
You have met someone very special and are involved in a relationship…. You want to share your excitement with your family but you are afraid that they won’t approve of the person you are dating. How do you tell your parents? Here are a few suggestions of what to do and what not to do.
Suggestions of what you should do…
1) Tell them you are happy. Most parents really want to make sure that their adult child is happy and on a path where someone will love them unconditionally. Reassure your parents that you have thought about your choice and you are happy about your decisions.
2) Acknowledge your fears about your parents’ reaction out loud. Sometimes when kids are little, parents may say, “I want you to marry someone who is XYZ.” Your parents may no longer feel that way about who you marry and may be able to assuage your anxiety early in the conversation. We all change our minds and evolve—maybe your parents did too.
3) Make clear to your parents where you are in the relationship. If you and your partner are talking marriage, let your parents know. Living together? Dating seriously? If you are in love, tell them. This is a time for you to tell your parents all of the fabulous qualities about your partner. If there are similarities between your partner and one of your parents, point that out.
4) If your parents are concerned about your choice of partner, gently remind them that your choice is not a rejection of them—you just fell in love! Remind your parents that you love them and appreciate all that they have done. Many parents take the decision that you have chosen someone from a different religion as a rejection of their religion or even a rejection of them. Let them know how much you appreciate various aspects of your upbringing.
5) Be sensitive. Parents may be a little shocked that you are falling in love with someone and moving forward in your life. Now that you are an adult, they may feel shocked that your life is moving quickly. Sometimes that shock may manifest itself in a focus on religious differences. For some parents the prospect of a wedding or a new generation may make a parent aware of their mortality and the future of aging. Even though you feel a little vulnerable, remember your parents have feelings too.
Suggestions of what not to do…
1) Don’t trap your parents. If your parents meet your special person but you don’t tell them how important the person is in your life, there is a chance that your parents may make insensitive comments about the person like: “She’d be great if only she were…” Let your parents know your feelings and who is important to you. This is not the time to be deceptive or coy.
2) Don’t ask a question if you are not prepared to accept an honest answer. If you ask for their input but don’t really want to hear anything negative, don’t ask. Everyone will remember any negative comments for a long time. Questions like, “do you think he is too selfish?” might get the answer you don’t want to hear.
3) Don’t Rush. If your parents are having a hard time adjusting to your announcement, slow down a little in your discussions with your parents. It is wise to give your parents a chance to digest your news.
Adjusting to the future may take time. Many people have a vision for the future and a vision that their children will make certain choices. If the future looks different than they anticipated, they will likely need an adjustment period to consider what is going on and then hopefully accept your choices. Parents may envision all kinds of things about where their kids will live, what they will do with their grandchildren, how the holidays will be celebrated… We all need to adjust when life isn’t how we imagined. Be patient.
Reality Check. Not all parents can accept whom you have chosen. Sometimes, your parents may have realistic concerns. Your parents may have legitimate views regarding compatibility issues that truly matter in the long run. It may take some time for your parents to become comfortable with the new reality.
A couple of months ago I officiated at the wedding of a wonderful couple—the bride was Jewish and the groom was Christian. Several days after the wedding, I received the following email from the bride, Susan (not her real name):
I have a question for you about Purim. Esther married the king, who wasn’t Jewish, and ended up saving her people. If she had not married the king, all of the Jews in the kingdom would have died. Extrapolating from this example, why is it considered such a bad thing for one to marry outside of the Jewish faith?
What a great question! Susan made a good point. In Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther, where we find the Purim story), the beautiful young Jewish Esther marries the Persian King Ahasuerus. At first, following the instructions of her cousin Mordechai, Esther hides the fact that she is Jewish. But when the evil Haman convinces the king that all of the Jews in the kingdom should be killed, Mordechai tells Esther that she should go to the king and reveal her true identity. At first Esther refuses, explaining to Mordechai that the king hasn’t summoned her for the past thirty days, and if she goes before the king without being summoned he may order that she be killed. But Mordechai replies, in words that have become very famous: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:13-14 – JPS translation)
Having been convinced by Mordechai’s powerful words of her responsibility to her people, Esther, after fasting for three days, goes before the king. Ultimately, Esther reveals to the king that she is a Jew, and she asks that the Jews of Persia not be exterminated. The evil Haman is impaled on the stake which he had put up for Mordechai, and the Jews survive.
So here’s how I responded to Susan’s email:
Over the years rabbis and Jewish commentators have offered various explanations about Esther’s marriage to the gentile Persian king. Of course the explanations/commentaries generally reflect more about the writer/commentator (who often has his—and historically it always was a “him”—own agenda/bias he is trying to promote when commenting on the text) than they reflect about the text. There are rabbis (clearly opposed to intermarriage) who have claimed that Esther was forced to marry the king against her will. The Zohar even says that the Shekhinah concealed Esther’s soul and sent another soul in its place, so that when King Ahasuerus slept with Esther, he wasn’t sleeping with the real Esther.
Of course the biblical text doesn’t say this at all. In the biblical text itself no judgment is made on Esther marrying out of her faith. And as you point out, by marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish, Esther ended up saving her people.
So here’s what I have to say about Esther: By marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish, and ultimately “coming out” to her husband, the king, as a Jew, Esther saves her people. The text doesn’t comment on the fact that Esther is in an interfaith marriage, and I agree that she should be held out as a positive example to interfaith couples.
In my view, the only thing Esther should be faulted for in the story is denying Mordechai’s first request to tell the King that she is Jewish, though she does this because she fears that the king may have her killed. But at Mordechai’s urging she ultimately reveals her true identity to the king and in doing so she saves the Jewish people. The bottom line is: There’s no problem with Esther’s intermarriage—the only problem would have been keeping her Jewish identity secret.
Esther can be a terrific role model for the idea that it’s OK to marry someone who isn’t Jewish so long as you openly and proudly maintain your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And just like Esther, you could end up “saving” the Jewish people along the way. The problem is NOT intermarriage…it is when someone stops identifying as a Jew.
Once again, Susan, mazel tov on your wedding. May you, like Esther, have a husband who supports you in that which is most important to you and honors your connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. And may you always be proud of your Jewish identity.
There are many things that I am proud of about my background. I am proud of my heritage, my hometown and my family. Being proud helps our self-esteem and drives us to reach for new goals. But from time to time, when speaking about my background, I want to be careful that I am not insulting another person’s background. Sometimes I worry that pride can cross a line and become insulting or even prejudice. I’m going to put it out there: I am a conservative Jew who likes country music and cheers for Duke and the Phillies. But many people who I adore are Catholic, like heavy metal, are UNC fans and love the Red Sox. OK—I said it. We all make our own choices.
No one would argue that being proud of your family, school, city and heritage is a wonderful thing. Last year, after the Boston Marathon bombings, it was powerful to see the slogan “Boston Strong.” The concept of uniting the city to find the bombers was a crucial first step in the healing process for a city that had suffered such a devastating event. Similarly, I greatly admire people who serve in our military because they love our country so very much that they put their lives on the line. There is nothing worse than the feeling of being attacked, so it makes sense to unify as a community or country to take back a feeling of control.
In the past 100 years there were two World Wars, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few. During the Second World War, Jews were targeted and murdered. As a result, many Jews have had a strong sense of pride as a way of overcoming such a horrific event in history. After centuries of persecution, many Jewish people felt very protective of their religion and culture. Many people dedicated their lives to working for Jewish causes. That sentiment is weakening as younger generations feel a distant connection to the Holocaust. Currently, some Jews do not feel threatened by anti-Semitism and feel very welcomed into American culture.
Here’s the problem. Pride is a wonderful motivator and generally exudes positive energy. However, sometimes pride comes at the expense of another city, town or culture or religion—and becomes prejudice. It is a very fine line between the two. The risk of misinterpretation or offending someone is constant. (And, there will always be people who are overly sensitive.) Yet, people don’t want to have their thoughts censored in their effort to be politically correct. It’s OK to have an opinion and to express it. But I think it is infinitely important to be aware that pride can easily step over the line and become prejudice.
Here is my recommendation: Think of pride versus prejudice like a sporting event. Everyone can and should cheer for their team. Competition is a great motivator and perseverance leads to wonderful self-esteem. Players and fans should exercise good sportsmanship. Occasionally there is a player or fan who steps out of line. Occasionally a player breaks a rule or there is even a flagrant violation. That doesn’t indicate that every player on that team is vindictive. We should exercise good sportsmanship and sensitivity and maintain the balance between pride and prejudice.
Even if You Don’t Plan To Convert, You Should Learn About Your Partner’s Religious Heritage: The Value of Introduction to Judaism Classes
When I was in rabbinical school in the late 1990s and in the years following my ordination in 2000 I had the great pleasure of teaching the Reform movement’s 16 week Introduction to Judaism class. I found it incredibly rewarding to have the privilege of exposing my students to the fundamentals of Jewish thought and practice. While a few of the students in my classes were Jews who wanted to learn more about their religious heritage, the vast majority of students were not Jewish but had Jewish partners and they registered for the class because they were considering becoming Jewish. In those days, like today, many Reform rabbis required that conversion students with whom they were working take the Intro class as one of the requirements for conversion.
At the first class session, I would always invite the students to introduce themselves and to share why they had signed up for the class. Often, after saying a few words about himself, a student would say: “And I plan to convert once I’ve completed this class.” Sometimes, the student who said this had been married to a Jewish person for years, raised Jewish children, been a part of a synagogue community and already knew a lot about what it mean to be Jewish. In those cases, the Intro class was the final step in a long process, and the person speaking truly knew what was involved in choosing to become Jewish.
Other times, the student who said this was someone who was dating or perhaps was engaged to someone Jewish, but he admittedly knew very little about Judaism. In those cases, I would encourage him to have an open mind and to learn as much as possible about Judaism—both in and out of class—and to defer making any decision until he had a better sense of what it meant to be Jewish. Then, if living a Jewish life was truly compelling to him, conversion would be the right path for him to take.
As a rabbi—and as someone who loves being Jewish and believes that Judaism brings meaning to my life and to the world—I think it’s wonderful when someone chooses to become Jewish. I have served on many b’tei din (rabbinic courts) for people becoming Jewish, and I have always found the experience to be incredibly powerful. It is truly an honor to be part of a person’s process of becoming Jewish—as long as the person is becoming Jewish for the right reason—that is, because she truly wants to be Jewish…not because her partner, or partner’s parents, want her to be Jewish. To me, serving on a bet din where someone is converting for the purpose of making a partner or other relative happy would be a mockery of the conversion process. Which is exactly why I would tell students in my Intro class who were just beginning to learn about Judaism: “Take your time, learn about Judaism and THEN decide if you want to convert.” And even if the student who was dating, engaged or married to a Jewish person never made the decision to convert, they would have learned about—and presumably developed a greater respect for—their Jewish partner’s religion in the process of taking the class.
Ten to 15 years ago, when I was teaching Introduction to Judaism classes, there were lots of students in the classes. I think that this was in part due to the fact that the liberal Jewish community put a lot of pressure on Jews marrying people of other faiths to convince their partners to convert to Judaism. For a number of reasons, this has changed. Thanks to the work of many individuals and of organizations like InterfaithFamily, the liberal Jewish community has become more welcoming to interfaith couples and families. Parents who aren’t Jewish—even if they are actively practicing another religion—can be part of their Jewish child’s religious upbringing…not just driving their children to and from Religious School, but learning alongside their children, participating in synagogue and Jewish communal activities and having a role in their Jewish children’s lifecycle events. Perhaps that explains why some of the Introduction to Judaism classes near where I live in Philadelphia are having trouble attracting enough students these days. Conversion to Judaism, and the intro classes that are an essential part of the conversion process are no longer seen in many liberal Jewish circles as the “necessity” that they once were.
However, just because someone whose partner is Jewish does not intend to convert, and may intend to continue practicing his or her own religion, I don’t think that they should refrain from enrolling in a class such as the Reform Movement’s Introduction to Judaism or other similar class. In Philadelphia, for example, the Conservative Moment sponsors the Rabbi Morris Goodblatt Academy, which offers a 30-week Introduction to Judaism class twice yearly to learn about Judaism. There’s tremendous value to learning about the history, beliefs and traditions of your partner’s religious heritage. For example, in a recent blog, InterfaithFamily wedding blogger Anne Keefe writes about how she, a practicing Catholic, is taking an Introduction to Judaism class not because she is thinking about conversion, but to learn more about her fiancé Sam’s religion.
I would encourage anyone who is seriously involved with a Jewish partner to consider learning more about Judaism. Similarly, I would encourage any Jewish person in an interfaith relationship to learn about their partner’s religion. Regardless of your own religious beliefs or practices, it can only benefit your relationship to learn more about your partner’s religious heritage.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you are in an interfaith relationship. If you are not Jewish but your partner is, have you taken an Introduction to Judaism or other similar class? If so, what was the experience like for you? If you are Jewish, have you taken a class to learn about your partner’s religious heritage? What class did you take? What other steps have you taken to learn about your partner’s religious beliefs and traditions?
I was recently giving a presentation about being sensitive to interfaith families and we talked about how Judaism has changed. I compared Judaism’s motivations to “the carrot or the stick.” Many of us were taught that we must follow the commandments or else…(the stick). I felt like scare tactics were part of the education. How many people hated their Hebrew school? And now, how many people really want to put their children through a rite of passage that they despised?
But now, in a society where we can do anything with just a few clicks, there needs to be an alternate approach showing the positive side of Judaism. Judaism teaches us a structure to life—how to celebrate, how to mourn, how to be healthy. There are also so many wonderful aspects about Judaism—the joy of decorating a sukkah, the peace of a beautiful Shabbat dinner, the joy of singing and cheering for a couple after their wedding.
One of my favorite children’s books is The Runaway Bunny. In this story, the bunny talks about running away from his mother and the mother replies each time that she will be there for him no matter where he goes. At the end, he gives up. The mother’s response is “Have a carrot.” “Have a carrot” is a wonderful metaphor for Judaism. No matter where we go, our ancestors have provided us with the sustenance to go forward. It may not be super sweet but it will be nourishing. Indeed, the positive carrot (rather than the stick) will sustain us and give us energy and nourishment for the future. Negative motivations may work in the short term but are unlikely to work for future generations.
I want my kids to enjoy Hebrew school and learning about Judaism. I am proud to say that through Jewish camp, and a lot of active parents in the religious school, the kids are having a good time. My husband and I also incorporate fun stuff relating to Judaism into our lives whenever possible. My kids enjoy learning when it’s fun. I hope that all children who are getting a Jewish education are enjoying it on a regular basis; perhaps through fun songs, Jewish cooking, a quiz bowl or a Hanukah party. If not, it is our responsibility to insist that their education be pleasant and not torture. Surely, religious education (in any religion) isn’t all joy and play but it should provide us sustenance for our future as human beings.
As a rabbi, it’s not unusual for me to get a call from a Jewish parent whose child is engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish. The parent usually asks if we can get together to talk—sometimes they want to talk because they’re having a hard time accepting the fact that their child is going to be in an interfaith marriage and other times they want to discuss a particular issue that has come up. Here is some advice that I often give to such parents (which is really just a variation on advice that I give to parents of adult children in general):
1. Your child’s marrying someone who isn’t Jewish isn’t necessarily a rejection of Judaism…or of you. As I wrote in my recent blog “Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism” just because a person falls in love with someone of another religion (or no religion) it doesn’t mean that they don’t value their Judaism. Many people today don’t see loving someone of a different faith and having a strong Jewish identity as being mutually exclusive. Your child can love their partner and they can love being Jewish—and they can love you too!
2. Give your child the time and space to make his/her own decisions. You probably have lots of questions: Will they have a Jewish wedding? Are they going to have a Jewish home? How are they going to raise their children? While you may want to know the answers to all of your questions NOW (if not yesterday…), your child and his/her partner may not have all of the answers yet, and even if they do, they may not be ready to share them with you. Let them know (through your words, and even more important, your actions) that you respect their right to make decisions on their own time frame and to share them with you when they are ready.
3. Accept that these are your child’s and his/her partner’s decisions to make. Notice that I didn’t say that you have to agree with—or even like—all of their decisions. It may be very upsetting to you that your daughter has decided not to be married by your rabbi or that she is going to have a Christmas tree in her home. But she is an adult and these are decisions for her and her partner to make, not for you to make. Odds are that she already knows how you feel about these things and if you critique everything she tells you then she may not want to keep sharing with you.
4. Be honest, but respectful. It’s OK to be honest about how you feel. You can tell your son that it makes you sad that he won’t be married in a synagogue or that his fiancé isn’t converting to Judaism. Most of us aren’t such great actors anyway and it’s always best to be honest—while recognizing that sometimes, as we learned as children, “if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” As you share your feelings, make sure that you are clear that they are your feelings—and while they are real and will hopefully be acknowledged by your son, remember that he and his partner are going to make their own decisions and that while the intent of these decisions isn’t to make you sad, this may be the unfortunate byproduct of some of their decisions.
5. Ask your child if s/he wants your opinion or advice. Your daughter may share with you some of the challenges she is dealing with in her interfaith relationship. For example, she may tell you that she’s angry at her fiancé for insisting that she go to church with his family on Easter, or that she’s hurt that her fiancé won’t come with her to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Odds are that if you offer advice and she doesn’t really want it, or you propose a solution that ends up not working for her and her fiancé, the result is that she will be mad at you. So how do you know what she wants? ASK! You can simply say: “Do you want to just vent and I’ll listen to your feelings, or do you want to hear my opinion and my advice?” That way, you’ll know her real purpose in sharing with you and you can respond accordingly. And if she tells you that she wants you to just listen but not offer your opinion, but this is too difficult for you to do, then you should be up front about it and not get into a conversation that won’t be productive for either of you.
6. Get to know your child’s partner. Your son fell in love with the woman he’s going to marry, so presumably there’s something very special about her. If you haven’t already done so, then get to know her and treat her with kindness and respect. Invite her to participate in Jewish events and celebrations—that is, if these are things you would be doing anyway. If you have Shabbat dinner as a family, invite your son and his fiancé to join you so she can share the beauty of Shabbat with your family. Be welcoming and explain to her what’s going on, while being careful not to be patronizing. But if you don’t regularly go to synagogue on Saturday mornings, don’t invite her to synagogue with you just so you can “counteract” the fact that she isn’t Jewish.
7. Talk to other parents whose children have intermarried. As in many situations, it’s often nice to feel like you’re not alone. It can be helpful to speak with someone who has had a similar experience who can understand how you are feeling and who can provide you with advice and support. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, join our Facebook group and get in the conversation.
What advice would you offer to a parent whose child is intermarrying? If your child is married to someone of a different religion, were you given any advice that you found helpful? Is there advice you found not to be helpful?