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This post originally appeared on www.edumundcase.com and is reprinted with permission.
The discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating for interfaith couples has quieted, other than a terrible piece by one of the Cohen Centerâ€™s own researchers, that IÂ blogged about separately. Iâ€™d rather focus on the positive responses to intermarriage as the High Holidays approach, and fortunately there is are five of them!
Back when Mark Zuckerberg was marrying Priscilla Chan, there were all sorts of derogatory comments from critics of intermarriage to the effect that his children would not be Jewish. So I was very pleased to see Zuckerbergâ€™sÂ Facebook postsÂ showing him with his daughter in front of lit Shabbat candles, what looked like a home-baked Challah, and a message that he had given her his great-great-grandfatherâ€™s Kiddush cup. 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.
Second, Steven M. Cohen, in aÂ new pieceÂ about declining number of Conservative and Reform Jews, says that arresting the decline â€śmeans encouraging more non-Jewish partners and spouses to convert to Judaism.â€ť Thatâ€™s not the positive news â€“ the positive news is a much different response: the â€śradical welcomingâ€ť recommended by Rabbi Aaron Lerner, the UCLA Hillel executive director â€“ a modern Orthodox rabbi, who grew up in an interfaith family himself. Rabbi Lerner writes thatÂ on college campuses, the intermarriage debate is already overÂ â€“ meaning that they regularly serve students who come from intermarried households, and sometimes those with only one Jewish grandparent, who they serve as long as they want to become part of their community in some way. Cohen could learn a thing or two from Rabbi Lerner:
Hillel and our Jewish community benefit enormously from that diversity.
Nobody can know for sure whether someone will grow into Judaism and Jewish life just because of their birth parents.
A Jewish student in an interfaith relationship may be inspired by our Shabbat dinners to keep that tradition for his entire life, no matter who he marries.
If these young students feel intrigued by Jewish learning, choose to identify with their Jewish lives and take on leadership roles in our community, they will be the ones shaping the future of Jewish life in America. But none of that happens if we donâ€™t make them welcome and included members of our campus communityâ€¦ I understand the communal sensitivities to intermarriage. But it happens whether we like it or not. If we donâ€™t give these young men and women a right to be part of our community, we risk losing them forever.
A third inclusive response is reported by Susan Katz Miller inÂ a piece about PJ Library. She notes that PJ is inclusiveâ€”when it asked in its recent survey about Jewish engagement of subscribers, it asked if children were being raised Jewish or Jewish and something else; it also asked how important it was to parents that their children identify as all or partly Jewish. She reports being told that 50% of interfaith families in the survey said they were raising children Jewish and something else, and 45% Jewish only. She quotes Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, as saying â€śâ€śThis entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether itâ€™s the exclusive religion in the home or notâ€ť she says. â€śIf your family is looking for tools, and youâ€™re going to present Judaism to your children, whether itâ€™s the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.â€ť
(There were other brief news items that are consistent with the value of an inclusive approach. The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent had a nice pieceÂ about interfaith families celebrating the High Holidays(featuring Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia), and the secular paper in Norfolk, Virginia had aÂ nice articleÂ about Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gillâ€™s work with an interfaith couple. The national past president of the Reform movementâ€™s youth group wrote anÂ inspiring pieceÂ about how she discovered the Jew she is meant to be â€“ revealing incidentally that she comes from an interfaith family. Batya Ungar-Sargon, theÂ ForwardÂ opinion editor,Â notesÂ the element of coercion in the Orthodox approach to continuity, with disavowal of coercion and embrace of freedom the point of being liberal. Thereâ€™s also an interesting article inÂ America,Â a Jesuit publication,Â When a Jew and a Catholic Marry. The author interviews four couples to illustrate different ways they engage with their religious traditions.)
In the fourth important item, Allison Darcy, a graduate student, asksÂ Are Your Jewish Views on Intermarriage Racist?Â She had decided not to date people who werenâ€™t Jewish because there was â€śtoo much pushback from the Jewish communitiesâ€ť in which she felt at home. A seminar on race theory prompted her to examine the implications of Jewsâ€™ prioritizing of in-marriage. For religious Jews who want to share their religion, it stems from a religious source; otherwise some amount of the conviction that Jews should marry Jews is based on ideas of racial purity.
Itâ€™s not a religious argument. Itâ€™s a racial one. Itâ€™s about keeping a people undiluted and preventing the adoption of other cultural traditions, which are clearly evil and out to usurp us. Itâ€™s a belief that itâ€™s our duty to keep everyone else away, rather than to strengthen our own traditions so that they can stand equally and simultaneously with others. In my mind, itâ€™s the easy way out.
Darcy acknowledges that the difference in Jewish engagement between children of in-married vs. intermarried parents â€“ but aptly points to the Cohen Centerâ€™s study on millennials to say that â€śby encouraging engagement with the community, we can near even this out.â€ť Her conclusion: aside from religious-based objections,
This idea that intermarriage is dangerous is a judgment, pure and simple. It implies that other lifestyles are inferior, and that we ourselves arenâ€™t strong enough to uphold our own. And at the end of the day, itâ€™s racist to insist on marrying within your own race for no other reason than they are the same as you.
The fifth itemâ€”I was startled by this, given past pronouncements by theÂ Jerusalem Postâ€”is anÂ editorialÂ that takes the position that Israel should allow everyone the right to marry as they chose, not subject to the control of the Chief Rabbinate.
If at one time it was believed the State of Israel could be a vehicle for promoting Jewish continuity and discouraging intermarriage, this is no longer the case. We live in an era in which old conceptions of hierarchy and authority no longer apply. People demand personal autonomy, whether it be the right of a homosexual couple to affirm their love for one another through marriage or the right of a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Dragging the State of Israel into the intricacies of halacha is bad for personal freedom and bad for religionâ€¦.
â€¦ Instead of investing time and energy in policing the boundaries of religious adherence, religious leaders should be thinking of creative ways to reach the hearts and minds of the unaffiliated.
â€¦ Those who care about adhering to the intricacies of halacha should, of course, have the right to investigate the Jewishness of their prospective spouse.
But for many Israelis, love â€“ the sharing of common goals and values, including living a Jewish life as defined by the couple, and a mutual willingness to support and cherish â€“ is enough.
TheÂ Jerusalem PostÂ endorsing interfaith couples living Jewish lives as defined by the couplesâ€”now that is another great start to the new year. I hope yours is a sweet and meaningful one.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Alongside theÂ negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.
Naomi Schaefer Riley has anÂ interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the Bâ€™nai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says
If thereâ€™s one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, itâ€™s the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isnâ€™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 â€śhypocriticalâ€ť 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 couldnâ€™t in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders â€śhave no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.â€ť Despite that, Riley does think the Bâ€™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 â€“ after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding â€“ 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, anÂ excellent article in theÂ Boston GlobeÂ 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 â€“ â€śItâ€™s not a minus one, itâ€™s a plus one.â€ť
Rubel says Honeymoon Israelâ€™s goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but â€śto empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.â€ť 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 â€śhad settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.â€ť This is very important. It shows whatâ€™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 â€“ and thereâ€™sÂ 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 28Â percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith familiesÂ and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish â€“ for example, 89 percent of interfaithÂ families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67Â percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaithÂ 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 â€śexcitingâ€ť to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.
One of the reportâ€™s conclusions is that â€śthere is room to grow the program among â€¦ intermarried familiesâ€ť 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. Itâ€™s interesting that PJâ€™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 JCCâ€™s; thatâ€™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 â€“ with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying â€śmore cultural booksâ€¦ more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazingâ€ť â€“ other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying â€śWe value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.â€ť Itâ€™s very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith familiesâ€™ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Libraryâ€™s efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.
After young interfaith families often come bâ€™nai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post hasÂ a very sweet storyÂ about two familiesâ€™ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah â€“ the fatherâ€™s mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didnâ€™t have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs â€śto confirm their identity.â€ť The fatherâ€™s wife/boyâ€™s mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldnâ€™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, â€śIâ€™m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. Iâ€™m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.â€ť The son says, â€śThe tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.â€ť One more proof of whatâ€™s possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.
That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed inÂ a fascinating episode on interfaith marriageÂ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesusâ€™ divinity.
Finally, theÂ new rabbi at Montrealâ€™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 â€śmakes 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.â€ť And Keren McGinity persuasively presentsÂ the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.