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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.
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.
I applauded in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movement’s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?
The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movement’s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism and InterfaithFamily.
But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.
In 2000 I wrote an op-ed, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include – indeed, embrace – not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.
It’s not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.
One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, “it’s wonderful that your daughter has a partner – but wouldn’t you prefer that she were straight?” No, he wouldn’t, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and I’ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said “is she Jewish”? right in front of my daughter’s husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be “sub-optimal.”
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like “ger toshav” is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they don’t want their children’s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more “in” or “out” and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies – and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.
A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the “us” to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have an aliyah excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.
After the Cohen Center’s recent research showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogue’s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCAR’s books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?
Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to “do both.” What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors – when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion – they mostly get “no” for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most won’t co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who haven’t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.
The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive – yes, a truly audacious – hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and don’t need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.
As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?
This year our sukkah is unkosher. It has no walls.
According to traditional Jewish law, a sukkah is supposed to have walls – four of them, actually, though one of them can be the side of a house if it’s been built up against a house. The walls can be made out of any material, but they have to be strong enough to withstand some wind without falling down.
Our sukkah has no walls because, in the midst of many challenges, we didn’t get around to putting them up. But that’s not the only reason. I confess that my wife and I also kind of like the way the sukkah looks and feels inside this way. A sukkah without walls is an appropriate religious symbol for our family.
Our nuclear family consists of four people and two dogs. It’s me, a liberal rabbi; Melissa, my spouse, who was my intermarried partner for part of the time I was a rabbinical student, before she converted; and Clarice and Hunter, neither of whom was born Jewish, and both of whom were old enough at the time of the adoption to have the right to decide whether or not to become Jewish. So far, they haven’t, at least not formally. On a day to day basis they alternate between identifying Jewishly and not. So, while neither of our kids identify with another religion, because, at least halakhically (according to Jewish law), they’re not Jewish, we are what gets referred to as an interfaith family.
For me, our sukkah without walls symbolizes Melissa’s and my core value of openness to welcoming the stranger deeply into our home and life. There’s a framework, a structure to our sukkah, as well as a roof made of foliage, and a lulav and an etrog too. Anyone who knows what a sukkah is who saw ours would know that it is a sukkah, or someone’s good try at erecting a proper sukkah. But our sukkah, perhaps inspired by Abraham and Sarah’s tent, is literally open on all sides. Like a sukkah with the traditionally prescribed walls that won’t fall down in a gust of wind, our “open architecture” sukkah also can withstand a gust of wind, but it accomplishes that feat not by resisting the movement of the air with sturdy barriers; rather, the changing winds blow right on through. (Metaphor now fully expressed, and possibly even overdone…)
Our sukkah without walls also speaks to me because our extended families consist of a really wide assortment of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living on different continents, practicing different religions, and speaking different languages.Our open sukkah reminds me of the huppah at our wedding, where Melissa’s down home conservative evangelical country relatives mixed with my loud and effusive Moroccan-Israeli clan. Everyone was welcome. Jewish traditions, practiced with some creative deviation from traditional Jewish law (Melissa wasn’t Jewish at the time, after all), defined the space, but with very open access to people of many faiths and identities.
Our sukkah also represents, for me, what I call our local family of choice. Our dear friend, Ariel,* was the single mother of four kids when we first met her and began helping each other parent our collective half dozen children with different challenges. Because of what our kids went through to end up in the foster care system, we needed the strength and support of others to parent them without falling apart. And because Ariel, who was accepted to law school and is the hardest working person we know, grew up in foster care herself, she’s a great model of resilience to our kids, and she really gets them in ways that we don’t. We’ve been able to help each other out in countless ways, and our daughter practically thinks of Ariel as another parent.
Ariel, by the way, is Baha’i. A little over a year ago I officiated at her wedding to Nathan,* who is Christian, and he and his son from a previous marriage are now part of this growing hybridized nuclear fusion Brady Bunch. (Full disclosure: One of our two dogs is actually their dog, staying with us for the time being.)
The boundaries between our two families are kind of like, well, our sukkah without walls. There are structures there between our families that are real and that operate every day. And yet, there’s also a very easy flow between our families and our homes, even our vehicles. (You can tell this because the empty cups and food wrappers on the floors of our cars are a mixed multitude of representatives of our various bad food choice preferences.)
I’m not seeking pity with what I’m about to say, but one of the painful things in my life, as a rabbi and even just as a Jew, is that I’m all too aware that for a part of the Jewish community, it’s not just my sukkah that’s unkosher, but our family is kind of unkosher too. A previously intermarried rabbinical student? That’s not kosher! A spouse of a rabbi who converted but not in an Orthodox way? For some, that means I’m still an intermarried rabbi. Totally unkosher (well, maybe not anymore). A rabbi’s family and their kids aren’t Jewish?! It’s like it’s raining pork and shellfish. On Shabbos.
There are some Jewish thought leaders who argue that it’s families like ours that are putting the future of the Jewish people at risk. There are too many different identities in the household, they say, and the boundaries aren’t strong enough to promote Jewish children, and aren’t rabbis supposed to be exemplars of Jewish lives that are more emphatically and unambiguously Jewish? Well, I suppose I can’t prove that these critics are wrong, though the truth is that they don’t know for a certainty what will or won’t make for a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future. I think their claims tell us more about their values and preferences than about how the future is or isn’t going to unfold.
The same can be said about my values and preferences, I admit. My values and preferences favor a Judaism of open and welcoming structures, of joyful and sincere practices shared with people of any background freely, and of flexibility and trusting the unknown. Perhaps my marriage will not produce any children who become Jewish adults raising Jewish children, and perhaps, therefore, we’ll be judged by some as a failed Jewish family, a Jewish continuity dead end.
But here’s the thing. Because of our life choices, it’s not just our two kids who know what a sukkah is and have helped build and decorate a sukkah and have heard Melissa and me talk about the themes of trust and welcoming guests and vulnerability. It’s not just our kids who have, again, broken the pitom (the stem) off ouretrog halfway through the holiday, thus rendering the etrog unkosher like our sukkah, and who have had to hear me discover this and yell, “Dammit! Who the hell broke off the pitom!? That’s the first thing you learn you’re not supposed to do! And it cost, like, forty dollars!” It’s also Ariel’s kids, who’ve had great fun in our sukkah over the years, as have Nathan, and his son, and some of our neighbors. And because the rabbinical seminary I attended didn’t turn me away, despite my way of doing Jewish, and neither did the synagogue I served for 8 years, I’ve taught and worked with well over a hundred kids in helping them to develop a Jewish identity of warmth, pride, and ethics. And sorry to be all bragging on myself, but I’ve also had two Jewish non-fiction books published, both of which strive to open access to Judaism to people of all faiths.
So maybe our unkosher family and our unkosher sukkah is a symbol of the demise of liberal Judaism. Could be. Or maybe it’s something else, maybe even something wonderful.
* names have been changed
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) is a Reconstructionist congregation located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a middle-class Boston neighborhood just minutes from Newton and Brookline. HBT is a welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural and inclusive spiritual community, which I observed firsthand when I was a substitute religious school teacher there a few years back. As with any synagogue, worship is a focal point, but this community also dedicates much of its time and resources to social justice and being responsive to the broader world in which we live.
If you are looking for an inclusive Jewish spiritual community in the Greater Boston area, Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is an exceptional option. Even if you aren’t in search of a temple to join, but simply an inclusive Jewish space for an occasional holiday or social program to attend, HBT’s vibrant community strives to make visitors feel right at home.
I recently interviewed Hillel B’nai Torah’s rabbi, Barbara Penzner. Rabbi Penzner is an exceptional spiritual and community leader. Below she shares insight pertaining to interfaith families at HBT, as well as the congregation’s values around inclusion.
What are some of the insights you have learned from working with interfaith families at HBT?
In my 19 years at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, I have observed many different kinds of families. In some families, both parents are active participants while in others, only one parent maintains a strong connection to our community. It’s interesting that these differences do not divide easily between families with two Jewish parents, interfaith families or even families where one parent has converted to Judaism.
In one family, the mother never converted, but because she committed to raising children in the Jewish tradition—before the marriage—the boys both attended Jewish day school. In another family, the father who is not Jewish remains committed to his personal faith while attending every Jewish function with his family. Many of those who decided to convert to Judaism waited until their children were old enough to urge them to “take the plunge” and celebrated with them at the mikveh.
What policies or practices does HBT institute pertaining to interfaith families?
In the late 1990s, our congregation spent a year discussing the roles for members who aren’t Jewish in order to clarify our expectations for participation in ritual and governance. We all agreed that we wanted to include all family members for celebrations like a bar/bat mitzvah. The entire family stands together on the bimah for these occasions, and both parents give their child blessings, if they choose.
Our goal is to make our congregation a haven and a home, a place where people feel welcome no matter what their background: interfaith, multi-racial, LGBT and other seekers. Our bottom line is that we hope each member is willing to learn and grow.
What programming do you offer that supports and addresses the needs/concerns of interfaith families? How have those initiatives or programs helped the community and those families/couples?
In recent years, a new group of families with young children have asked for a special group to help them deal with the challenges of raising children when parents have different religious backgrounds. Our group began as a gathering for interfaith couples. By the second year, we realized that the questions we were grappling with were valuable to all parents. We renamed the group “Parenting through Our Differences.” The group has discussed observing Jewish holidays, responding to the demands of extended family members, dealing with death and mourning in a Jewish way, and of course, navigating the December holidays
What brings you the most joy about your work, particularly your leadership around diversity and inclusion?
Lately I’ve enjoyed spending time with young couples who are preparing to marry and wish to explore the complexities of creating an interfaith family. I have watched couples navigate the dynamics of family and community that inevitably raise questions about the meaning of family, identity, religion and God. These are not easy questions and the answers are not straightforward.
What gives me faith in the future is the intention these couples bring and the open-heartedness with which they discuss their challenges. That, after all, is what religion is ultimately about. How we live out our religious practices and how we name our faith springs forth from our own personal truth; without that honest self-assessment, religion is only window-dressing. Ideally, our community seeks to foster these heartfelt investigations and create bonds of compassion and support.
On Sunday, November 9, HBT will be featuring scholar Keren McGinity, author of Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America to speak about her new book Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage and Fatherhood.