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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
The interfaith marriage news since the High Holidays has continued to be positive for the most part. I was especially pleased to read Rabbi Micah StreifferâsÂ Yom Kippur sermonÂ announcing that he was going to start officiating at weddings for interfaith couples. I say âespeciallyâ because Rabbi Streiffer is in Toronto, Canada and as far as I know he is the first Reform rabbi there to officiate. I remember many years when InterfaithFamily was not able to refer people in Toronto to any âmainstreamâ rabbis, so this is a welcome breakthrough.
I also say âespeciallyâ because Rabbi Streiffer cites the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion in which Moses says that everyone present is entering into the covenant with Godâand Rabbi Streiffer explicitly says that includes âtheÂ ger,Â the non-Jew.â Thatâs an argument I first made back inÂ 2000. Itâs very affirming to have a rabbi endorse of that view. Itâs an exemplary inclusive sermon that is well worth reading.
A second great item was an article by InterfaithFamilyâs Stacie Garnett-Cook,Â Interfaith Inclusion: One Year to Lasting Change,Â who asked, âWhat should an organization actually do to become more inclusive? Many organizations say that they are welcoming, but do our actions and words match our intentions?â InterfaithFamilyâs new Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI), modeled on the Keshet Leadership Project and funded by the Covenant Foundation, supports leaders in organizations who create and implement action plans to accomplish those goals. The article describes the program design and underlying theory, as well as the organizations that participated in the first year.
The importance of being truly inclusive in attracting and engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community canât be over-estimated. I hope many more Jewish organization will seriously consider participating in this initiative.
I was honored to be included in Moment Magazineâs Symposium,Â Is Intermarriage Good for the Jews?Â (If you want to know how I looked at 24, take a look at my wedding photo âmy 7-year-old grandson said I looked âyoungââand I assure you that the tie I was wearing was very fashionable at the time!) Marilyn Cooper did a great job putting together very diverse views; reading all of them carefully left me feeling, well, that there are very diverse views. I was the only person who actually said there are many strong arguments why interfaith marriage is good for Jews. Keren McGinity also expressed a positive view:
Provided that intermarried Jews and their families are treated equally as inmarried families, and that Jewish education is accessible and engaging, intermarriage can be an opportunity for Jews and their loved ones to draw closer to Judaism and the Jewish community.
Several contributors, including Bob Davis, A. J. Jacobs and Naomi Schaefer Riley, saw increased tolerance as a positive impact of interfaith marriage. Rabbis Matalon and Lau-Lavie, who are pushing the Conservative movementâs boundaries on officiation, offer very realistic assessments that I thought were optimistic about engaging interfaith families Jewishly.
But there were several expressions of quite negative views. In upholding the movementâs ban on officiation, I respectfully think Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the Conservative movementâs Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is wrong to say that officiating at interfaith marriages does not help the Jewish people, and that âReform rabbis have been doing this for quite a while and, for the most part, they have not succeeded in convincing the intermarried couples to be actively Jewish.â I think that is an untenable position givenÂ the research Iâve mentioned many timesÂ that shows correlation between officiation and later synagogue membership and raising children as Jews.
Two Orthodox perspectives insisted on opposing interfaith marriage, one saying âintermarriage is heartbreaking.â Sarina Roffe was most extreme: âEvery time someone marries out, a whole generation of Jewish people is gone.â She comes from the Syrian Jewish community, which she says rejects not only those who intermarry, but even those who marry Orthodox converts.
I was puzzled by Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel, who says that if he had intermarried, âexperiences that I currently derive tremendous meaning from would be missing.â I say puzzled because there is no reason why the experiences he mentionsâsaying Kaddish for a parent, preparing a son for his bar mitzvah, and watching a daughter learn Hebrew âhave to be missing in intermarried families.
TheÂ ForwardÂ also publishedÂ We asked 22 rabbis: Is intermarriage a problem or an opportunityÂ which offered a not dissimilar set of diverse views. Susan Katz Miller had anÂ interesting takeÂ on the piece, criticizing the sample for being half Orthodox rabbis (when the Orthodox are 10% of the population) and only two Reform, and the âcorrosiveâ content of many of the responses. She correctly points out that interfaith families reading many of the opinions will not feel welcomed or included.
I was struck, however, by responses from two wonderful Orthodox rabbis, Shmuly Yanklowitz and Avram Mlotek, who did emphasize inclusivity. Rabbi Yanklowitz said, âWith the proper inclusive programming and outreach opportunities, there are ways to make interfaith families feel welcome in the community, which will, in turn, spark interest in creating and perpetuating loving Jewish households.â Rabbi Mlotek said, âIf our Jewish communities seek to be relevant religious centers for the 70% of American Jews who choose to intermarry, it is incumbent upon us to welcome these families unabashedly and work with them as they strive to build Jewish homes.â
Finally in the continuing discussion about Conservative rabbis and officiation, there is items.Â Letter Reignites Interfaith Officiation DebateÂ refers toÂ a letter by four Conservative leadersÂ that re-affirms the ban on officiating for interfaith couples, but does talk at length about welcoming them.Â Conservative Jewish Leaders Are Endangering Their BrandÂ is an opinion by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall who objects to the letterâs statement that the intermarried should be welcomed with âequally open arms.â Kwall wants to retain the Conservative brandâs strong preference for in-marriage â thatâs a non-inclusive approach that I believe can only lead to decline.
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 Centerâs own researchers, that IÂ blogged about separately. Iâd 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 ZuckerbergâsÂ 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-grandfatherâs 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 âmeans encouraging more non-Jewish partners and spouses to convert to Judaism.â Thatâs not the positive news â the positive news is a much different response: the âradical welcomingâ 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 donât make them welcome and included members of our campus communityâŚ I understand the communal sensitivities to intermarriage. But it happens whether we like it or not. If we donât 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 inclusiveâwhen 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 ââThis entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether itâs the exclusive religion in the home or notâ she says. âIf your family is looking for tools, and youâre going to present Judaism to your children, whether itâs the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.â
(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-Gillâs work with an interfaith couple. The national past president of the Reform movementâs 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. Thereâs 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 werenât Jewish because there was âtoo much pushback from the Jewish communitiesâ 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.
Itâs not a religious argument. Itâs a racial one. Itâs about keeping a people undiluted and preventing the adoption of other cultural traditions, which are clearly evil and out to usurp us. Itâs a belief that itâs 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, itâs 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 Centerâs study on millennials to say that âby encouraging engagement with the community, we can near even this out.â 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 arenât strong enough to uphold our own. And at the end of the day, itâs racist to insist on marrying within your own race for no other reason than they are the same as you.
The fifth itemâI was startled by this, given past pronouncements by theÂ Jerusalem Postâis 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 religionâŚ.
âŚ 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.
âŚ 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 couplesânow 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.
Thereâs been an explosion of news and comment about intermarriage in the past 10 days. On June 11 I blogged about Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieâs big reveal that he would officiate for interfaith couples who were the modern-day equivalents of the ger toshav, the âresident alienâ who in the past was not Jewish but lived among and interacted with Jews and had some status under Jewish law. Lau-Lavieâs proposal got more coverage, from Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week, as well as a statement from the head of the Conservative rabbisâ association that reiterated their opposition to Conservative rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples.
The Forward publicized Lau-Lavieâs proposal and invited comment to a new âconversationâ about intermarriage I thought the most trenchant comment came from Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, a senior Conservative rabbi who had announced that he would officiate for interfaith couples, and was expelled from the Conservative rabbisâ association. Rabbi Rosenbloom writes that Lau-Lavieâs idea, while creative and imaginative, is fatally flawed, âtoo little, too late.â
âThe person who is not Jewish is not looking to study for six months, make various commitments for future involvement in the Jewish community, and be known (I must say, derogatorily) as a âresident alienââŚ. Mostly, this proposal is about making a rabbi feel comfortable doing something he or she wants to do but is not permitted to do.â Rabbi Rosenbloom says that what couples want from officiants is affirmation:
We should embrace them with love and affirmation, not make demands upon them that they cannot possibly commit to, and act as if we are grudgingly doing them a favor.Â What we need most is faith in the future. We need to believe in Judaism. We need to believe that the wisdom of Jewish teaching, the ethical values that are at the heart of that teaching, and lure of being part of an ancient people that is continually reinventing itself to be relevant and responsive to the changing religious, spiritual, and moral demands of every epoch, are compelling enough that many of these couples will choose to live as part of the Jewish community. We need to put fewer obstacles in their path. We need to welcome them for what they may add to our people as well as what we might add to their lives.
Susan Katz Miller also offered What Do Interfaith Couples Want From Rabbis: she says they want co-officiants, not to be forced to make promises about how they will raise children, and Jewish institutions to educate their children even if they are raising them with both religions in the home.
In the meantime, on June 16 the Forward, the New York Jewish Week and JTA reported that the rabbis at âmegaâ âflagshipâ synagogue Bânai Jeshurun in New York had announced that they too would officiate for interfaith couples who commit to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. Interfaith couples will sign a ritual document but not a ketubah. The rabbis will still hold to the matrilineal definition of Jewishness. As JTA reports, BJ is âlarge and trendsetting, and âhas roots in the Conservative movement, [but] is unaffiliated with any denomination.â
And also in the meantime a brave Orthodox Rabbi, Avram Mlotek, wrote “Time to Rethink Our Resistance to Intermarriage.“ He actually says, âA posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.â And âIn order for the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, itâs time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices. Instead, welcome âthe otherâ into the Jewish family. The rest is commentary.â The liberal Modern Orthodox seminary where Rabbi Mlotek was ordained, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, was quick to reiterate its opposition to intermarriage.
There are two important commentaries on all of the news. Shmuel Rosner, in “The rabbisâ intermarriage debate: How to decide who is right and who is wrong,” says the issue is complicated when demography and continuity and the perspective of Jewish policy are taken into account. Pragmatically, he writes, âthe Jews should know by now that âstoppingâ intermarriage is a hollow quest. It is not going to happenâŚâ but intermarriage is a challenge that may be manageable, and may even be an opportunity, but may reduce the number of Jews and the intensity of Jewishness. Rosner concludes that the only way forward is to âlet this trial and error run its course.â
If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us â and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.
The problem with this incredibly non-activist approach is that arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage wonât be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends â like by rabbis not officiating â disapprove of interfaith couples relationships.
Andrew Silow-Carroll has a very interesting take on the latest research showing lesser engagement by interfaith families. He says that critics of the researchers say that they âdonât see the people behind the numbers.â
These critics say the major studies and their authors treat the intermarried as a statistical burden rather than living and breathing individuals making sometimes hard, sometimes welcome choices. ThatÂ interfaith couples feel judged by the âtribalisticâ mainstream,Â and that Jewish institutions should accept people as they are, not as they wish them to be. Besides, critics say, the statisticians are working against forces they canât resist and longing for a past that cannot be recaptured.
In response to the Forward invitation to join the new âconversationâ about intermarriage, I adapted the piece I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy, “How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Â Interfaith Families Be?” and the Forward published “We Must Embrace Interfaith Families â with No Strings Attached.” I said that all of the commentary and discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating skirted the difficult issues that have to be addressed if interfaith families are going to engage Jewishly â the need for radically inclusive attitudes and practices, the need to stop privileging in-marriage, the need to welcome people from different faith traditions without limitations.
Silow-Carroll says the intermarriage debate has âescalatedâ and judging by all of the commentary it surely has. Stay tuned to see how it develops next.
Postscript June 21
That was fast! Today the Forward has prominent Conservative rabbi Rabbi Daniel Gordis saying “The Conservative Movement Will Inevitably Cave on Intermarriage.” Rabbi Gordis seems to lament a series of Conservative halachic decisions that in his view gave in to social pressure â allowing people to drive to synagogue on Saturdays, to eat fish in non-kosher restaurants, to sanctioning same-sex marriage (he says he isnât taking a stand on the last issue in this essay). The interesting point he makes, that I hadnât thought of: If Conservative rabbis officiate at weddings for interfaith couples, it would be an untenable position for them to later say âyes, one of our rabbis married you, but no, we donât consider your children Jewish.â In other words, they will have to recognize patrilineal descent; Rabbi Gordis laments, âNot that far off is the day when people whom Conservative Judaism calls Jews will not be able to marry Orthodox Jews or many Israelis.â
In Marc Maronâs recent podcast âWTF,â he interviews Jason Segel (of How I Met Your Mother fame) at length and touches on his interfaith upbringing early on. (The interview itself begins at 14 minutes in, and the conversation turns to religion at about 15 Â˝ minutes.)
Segelâs father is Christian and his mother is Jewish, and he tells Maron, âNeither of them are religious. So they made this decision that they were going to let me decide, which is like the dumbest thing you can do for a kid. Because you donât really care [at that age].â
He goes on to say, âAt Christian school youâre the JewishÂ kid and at HebrewÂ school youâre the ChristianÂ kid. I think thatâs the nature of groups.â
Itâs not surprising that Haaretz picked up on the message that being a âhalf-Jewâ (their words, not oursâwe do not promote this term) equaled âoutsiderâ for Segel. Being brought up with two religions does not work for everyone, and perhaps having parents who Segel did not consider religious themselves, he didn’t haveÂ the necessary context for religion at home that is necessary to form a religious identity.
Susan Katz Miller takes issue with Haartezâs framing of the interview: âClearly, by leading with this idea [of interfaith equals outsider], the intent was to use Segelâs story as a cautionary tale, warning parents away from dual-faith education, or from interfaith marriage in general.â
The argument that raising children in an interfaith family can lead to them not identifying as Jewish is nothing new. AndÂ Katz Miller makes some good points in response to this assertion, including:
âYes, it is essential for interfaith children to have support for integrating two (or more) cultures in their families, rather than bouncing back and forth between two separate religious worlds.”
Katz Miller touches on the danger in simply being dropped into two different religious institutions without enough context at home or awareness withinÂ the religious institutions themselves about interfaith families. We donât know exactly what Segelâs religious life was like at home, but it sounds like there might not have been much reinforcement of what he was learning outside the home. At InterfaithFamily, we try to educate parents and offer many ways to boost their knowledge of Judaism and how to do Jewish at home, so that a child has a framework for what they are learning and why itâs important to their family. And we work to help Jewish organizations create a welcoming environment where kids will feel they belong–regardless of their background.