When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
An article in the Forward looks at the Conservative movement and its “hostile environment” for intermarried couples and families.
The question of what to do about intermarriage has long bedeviled the Conservative movement. As Jewish rates of intermarriage have climbed over the past few decades, the Reform movement has gained a reputation for openness, recognizing patrilineal descent and allowing rabbis to officiate at mixed marriages. On the other end of the spectrum, the Orthodox movement has disavowed intermarriage as a violation of Jewish law and a threat to Jewish continuity.
Conservative Judaism occupies a murky middle ground. Its Rabbinical Assembly prohibits Conservative rabbis from officiating at interfaith weddings, and even their presence at such a marriage can cause a stir. (Witness the fuss made over the presence of Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the reception after Chelsea Clinton’s wedding in July 2010. Although he is not a rabbi, Eisen had to publicly state that he had not attended the wedding, which had taken place during Shabbat.) When it comes to synagogue policies on welcoming intermarried couples, however, national guidelines are vague, if not completely outdated.
The R.A. is currently revising its policies regarding intermarriage. The last time it took an official position on the subject was in 1988, when it advised Conservative congregations to encourage non-Jewish spouses to participate but not to belong. A non-Jewish partner might be welcome at High Holy Day services, for instance, but he or she would be barred from membership.
So why an article now?
Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative synagogue just outside Philadelphia, made a tiny amendment to its constitution: It redefined household membership to apply to families with one Jewish parent as well as those with two.
Though the amendment impacted a small number of intermarried congregants — some 10 families out of a total of 720 — it spelled a philosophical transformation for the congregation that reflects broader changes in the Conservative movement writ large. Faced with the prospect of losing members because of a hostile environment for intermarried couples, Conservative congregations are providing membership opportunities for non-Jewish spouses. But in doing so, they are sometimes placing themselves in opposition to the national Conservative leadership. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the movement’s congregations, opposes membership rights for non-Jews.
Congratulations, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El. I hope other Conservative synagogues take similar first steps. And, let’s hope that this is, in fact, but a first step…
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I attended religious school at Monmouth Reform Temple. At MRT, every year, we learned the valuable lesson of giving back through Tzedakah (Hebrew word for “righteousness”). We’d collect cans for the local food pantry on the high holidays; we’d plant trees in Israel every Tu Bishvat; and we’d collect our loose change throughout the year as our class project to give to our favorite charity.
As rooted in my Jewish values, I believe in the importance of Tikun Olam (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) and Tzedakah. And, I encourage you to do the same.
Whether you collect your loose change each year or make an online donation, consider supporting IFF with your Tzedakah. Did you find a great Rabbi to officiate your wedding? Did you download one of our helpful booklets to welcome your interfaith grandchildren to your Passoverseder? Or do you enjoy reading our blogs? We want to continue to serve both you and the interfaith community. Consider giving back to IFF today.
Here in Boston, there was both a Dyke March on Friday night (complete with a Shabbat dinner picnic potluck) and the rainy Pride Parade on Saturday. Around North America (and many other regions of the world), parades and activities happen throughout the month in recognition of Stonewall and LGBTQ rights (achieved or desired).
Following the month’s trend, the Reform Judaism blog has a post today called “On Being Straight in the World’s First Gay Synagogue.” And though it’s up there to mark June as Pride month, I think there’s more to it than lessons on LGBTQ inclusion. The author, Maggie Anton Parkhurst, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first gay synagogue (founded in 1972), writes:
We are diverse in more ways than sexual orientation. Yes, we are a Reform congregation, but our members have all sorts of Jewish backgrounds, from converts and Workman’s Circle yiddishists, through mainline Conservative to Orthodox yeshivahbochers. Despite these differences, we share a commitment to gender neutrality and equality at services, along with lots of singing.
We also represent Los Angeles’s varied ethnicities, which is abundantly clear when members read from the Book of Esther in fourteen different languages at Purim. Tolerance and embracing the stranger are BCC’s hallmarks, especially the latter, as everyone walking in on Shabbat receives a warm welcome. Even and especially people who feel excluded, or worry about feeling excluded, at other synagogues.
At first, all this diversity was uncomfortable compared to the suburban temple where our children grew up….
This is key. Whether welcoming individuals or families who are LGBTQ or interfaith, something as simple and easy as welcoming each and every person goes a long way. Have a greeter at the door to say “welcome” and “Shabbat shalom” to each person – be they regulars or newcomers. Every congregation – Reform or not, LGBTQ or not – can take a lesson from Beth Chayim Chadashim to ensure that all of us, strangers all, feel embraced and welcomed.
My friend and wonderful writer Judy Bolton-Fasman’s most recent column is a great one, and not just because of the shout-out to InterfaithFamily.com. In An Interfaith Family with a Jewish Heart, Judy writes about the bar mitzvah of the son of one of her oldest friends, Vicki, and her Lutheran-raised husband, Kurt. It’s a very moving account.
[The bar mitzvah boy] talked about how his beautiful mother and his generous father supported his Jewish learning. His non-Jewish grandparents read the Schechehiyanu… I took Kurt aside during the weekend and thanked him for being a beloved companion of the Jewish people.
Judy’s column, which I read in hard copy in the Jewish Advocate of Boston, reminded me of a blog post from a year ago describing a similar situation. J.J. Goldberg, senior columnist for the Forward, had written a column titled “Our Changing Judaism” about his experience at a family bar mitzvah where the father was not Jewish. I wrote at the time that “It is heartening to me for a thought leader of J.J. Goldberg’s stature to say that it felt natural and necessary for a non-Jewish parent to be an integral part of the celebration of raising a Jewish child” and concluded:
When more Jewish leaders recognize that Goldberg’s cousin’s family — with an unconverted non-Jewish parent participating in raising a Jewish child — is not sub-optimal, but instead is a positive Jewish outcome equal to any other — then we will have a truly “changing Judaism.”
I welcome Judy’s piece as another step in that direction.
On Monday, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (of the Conservative/Masorti Movement) posted a video to YouTube explaining the importance of having a welcoming website. Aimed at synagogues, the video was publicized by an email sent out by the FJMC.
What’s interesting about the video (and email) is that it never explicitly states something like, “synagogue websites should say, ‘Our synagogue is welcoming of all families, including interfaith families and families of diverse backgrounds.’”
Instead, it suggests:
Your congregation’s website is your most important tool to attracting today’s Jewish family. Your website’s ‘welcome’ must be obvious. It needs to greet the visitor in a meaningful and sincere way. For example, if you’re welcoming interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families, words like ‘welcome,’ ‘open,’ and ‘diverse’ need to be prominent and obvious.
Buzz words aren’t enough. If you’re welcoming of “interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families,” say so! Use those descriptive words! The video shows interfaith families (a family standing in front of a Christmas tree and a menorah!) and shows that we should be welcoming to interfaith families (the word “interfaith” on a doormat!), but doesn’t say to use the words on the websites.
It seems like the Conservative Movement wants to be welcoming of interfaith families, but doesn’t think it can outright say so. But it can. And should.
This is a great start. I appreciate that the FJMC is making this effort, and we all know that making changes in synagogues can be a slow and arduous process, but… Let’s just take it a step further.
What do you think? Watch the video and leave a comment:
Friedman was best known as a Jewish songwriter, often credited with reinvigorating synagogue music (especially in the Reform movement). Through her music, many people found prayers more accessible and interesting. Friedman could be credited for making Reform Judaism more welcoming to the masses. As BZ wrote on Jewschool, “Her goal was always (as she wrote in the liner notes to Sing Unto God back in 1972) ‘the importance of community involvement in worship’.”
She was among the first to combine Hebrew and English words in liturgical songs. Rabbi Daniel Freeland, Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a 2007 tribute video,
The English tells you exactly what the song is about, what the prayer is about, even if you don’t understand the Hebrew. And she was able to get us to feel comfortable singing Hebrew words because she gave us the English language spiritual overlay – which can be translated into any language. It was a very creative spin, and, frankly, Debbie reintroduced English into the American Reform vocabulary in the 1970s, after it had been totally banished.
(You can watch the full video, embedded below.)
Her impact was so huge, a healing service, put together and held on Sunday at the Manhattan JCC, was not only completely full, but was streamed online. Several thousand people tuned in to watch it live, and many thousand more have watched it since (and I’m sure many more will do so over the coming days and weeks). You can view the video here; the service starts around the 16:00 minute mark. Unsurprisingly, the service started with one of Friedman’s tunes, with which everyone sang along. As was said in the service, it shifted from a healing service to become an unofficial memorial instead, with the community acting as shomrim (guards), singing her songs with hopes of guarding her soul. (Word of Friedman’s passing spread shortly before this service was scheduled to start.)
An interesting article appeared in the most recent edition of our local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Advocate, outlining the interfaith, interreligious, intercultural practices of one of our community members.
Friday afternoon he goes to the Mosque for the Praising of Allah on Shawmut Avenue in Roxbury for the Jumu’ah prayer. By 6 p.m., he is at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, throwing on a tallis to drum for the Shabbat services. He returns to TBZ on Saturday morning for Torah study and services. Sunday he begins the day at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Roslindale and then heads to his own church, the Unitarian Universalist First Church of Roxbury.
[Reverend Ronald] White, 66, said he has been doing the same routine for the past three years, and over time he has become more than a visitor at each place of worship. On Friday night during Sukkot, TBZ congregants clapped their hands to the beat as White pounded the drum and shook his tambourine from his seat in the front row of the sanctuary. After services, he schmoozed with congregants in the sukkah before getting on his bike to ride home to Jamaica Plain.
Wow. That’s quite a commitment!
He and his interfaith family are members at Temple Israel in Boston, where his three daughters, who were raised Jewish, all had bat mitzvahs.
Possibly of interest to our readers in the Boston area,
I have long felt that JCC’s are a prime location for welcoming interfaith families and engaging them in Jewish life. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, most notably the Pathways program at the Atlanta JCC, most JCC’s do not offer programming aimed specifically for people in interfaith relationships.
I was reminded of all of this by a noteworthy article in the New York Jewish Week, JCC, Synagogues In Holy War In Boca, by Stewart Ain. I’ve seen indications before that some JCC’s want to get more into the “Jewish life” business, which I think is a great development, and I was very pleased to see that Allen Finkelstein, the executive director of the JCC Association, is leading that effort:
“In the last year and a half, I’ve been pushing JCCs to get into conversations about what is happening in Jewish life,” he said.
Finkelstein said he asked the JCCs “what we need to be doing going forward, and what energized us was a remembrance of our Jewish core.
“Not everyone wants to daven [pray],” he added. “We want to find ways to go to primarily young families and say to them that we want to make Jewish engagement easier for you.”
I hope that will lead to more programming for interfaith families. I hope the JCC’s don’t buy the argument that people in interfaith relationships want general programs, not programs just for them; both kinds are needed.
The article reports that the Boca Raton JCC has hired a charismatic rabbi, Michael Stern, who meets people in their homes and asks them what they want and are looking for in Judaism, and who is now offering Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur programs. There are many references in the article to the JCC’s programming being particularly attractive to intermarried couples.
According to Marty Schneer, the JCC’s executive director, “We are targeting the unaffiliated and marginally affiliated who are not experiencing the holidays elsewhere.” The article reports that only 12% of the more than 120,000 Jews in the area are affiliated with a synagogue. Rabbi Stern, who will conduct the High Holiday programs, said that they would:
include “five or six pieces of the traditional service, stories that illustrate insight about the prayers, an explanation about the function of prayer and what we are trying to get out of prayer.” “My goal is to build a vibrant JCC community with the emphasis on the Jewish part of the JCC,” he said. “We are the frontline agency that touches more Jews than any other institution, particularly the intermarried. What should our response be?”
The “Holy War” in the article title reflects that the local rabbis apparently don’t like the JCC’s High Holiday programming one bit. One referred to Rabbi Stern as “an outside rabbi” and called it “usurpation” and “invasion” and said the JCC had stepped over the line and was acting as a synagogue. Another said “we will have a duplication of effort at a time when synagogues are also thinking of how best to serve the Jewish community.”
It is trite to say that there are way too many turf battles in the Jewish world. I was a large synagogue president and I sympathize with synagogues’ needs to attract members with their High Holiday services because they need members to pay dues to support their staff and buildings and program offerings. But synagogues have a real problem with the high cost of belonging, and some have a real problem with services and programming that is not compelling to young families. It is important that young families in particular have Jewish programming that they are attracted to and comfortable participating in, and if they find that at a JCC, that is a good thing.
Moreover, it should be possible for JCC’s and synagogues in a community to collaborate and coordinate their offerings. Wouldn’t it be smarter for the Boca Raton synagogues to view the JCC’s High Holiday programming as a potential “feeder” of people to the synagogues? If the JCC does a good job and turns young families on to Jewish life, won’t they naturally want to find the deeper programming and community that synagogues ideally should offer? There are too many communities in the country where alternatives to synagogues are viewed, not as feeders, but as competitors. I think that’s a shame.
I came across the blog Beauty Tips for Ministers thanks to a link from JewishBoston.com. It gave me a good laugh. Rev. Victoria “Vicki” Weinstein writes it under the name PeaceBang. While the blog is entertaining, what I found even more interesting was that Rev. Weinstein, a Universalist Unitarian minister, is the child of an interfaith family. According to a Boston Globe article, she is the daughter of a Jewish father and Russian Orthodox mother. She was raised Unitarian because the Unitarians welcomed her parents. Maybe we would have had one more really cool rabbi had her family been welcomed into a synagogue.
It’s an interesting link to the issue of welcoming. If you’ve been following our blog posts on the issue you’ll know that this is a heated topic in the “Jewish interfaith outreach world”. If you are not in the “Jewish interfaith outreach world”, the idea of welcoming people into a religious community may just be good manners. No one wants to feel unwelcomed, let alone made to feel like an outsider once they have been told to come on in. At InterfaithFamily.com, we hear all kinds of stories from people who have had negative interactions with clergy, professionals and lay people from a receptionist telling a woman who came in to sign her children up for Hebrew school but whose last name did not sound Jewish, “did she know that this was a JEWISH synagogue,” to a rabbi asking a long term Jewish congregant who was intermarried and whose parent had passed away “was she going to sit shiva [since she was intermarried]” to a non-Jewish spouse who was told he was not allowed to play on the synagogue’s softball team because he wasn’t Jewish. The Jewish community (as a whole or in parts) needs to work on what it means to be welcoming, but as individuals I think we need to work on our manners and common sense.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement (Union for Reform Judaism), announced on June 10 that he would retire in two years. You can find the text of his prepared remarks on eJewish Philanthropy and articles with more analysis by Josh Nathan-Kazis in The Forward and by Jonathan Sarna also in The Forward.
I have to confess to having very mixed feelings about Rabbi Yoffie. He exercised leadership on many matters that I personally applaud greatly. I personally agree with positions he has taken on Israel, on domestic social policy and justice issues, on interfaith dialogue, on efforts to re-invigorate Reform Jewish worship services, on emphasizing text study, and more.
My problem relates to what I care about most both professionally and personally — engaging interfaith families in Jewish life. I find it somewhat telling that in his prepared remarks — which admittedly are not his final comments, those will come at and after the next URJ biennial in 2011 — that in discussing some of the future challenges facing the Reform movement, and some of the specific work that needs to be done in the next two years — there is no mention of engaging interfaith families.
The Reform movement’s record on outreach to interfaith families under Rabbi Yoffie’s leadership is disappointing. Prior to 2003, the movement had an outreach department with some headquarters staff and a half-time regional outreach director in each of its fourteen regions; all of these people were outstanding dedicated professionals who did amazing work helping congregations welcome interfaith families and attract them to Jewish life. In 2003, the movement eliminated most of the positions, reportedly because of financial pressures. InterfaithFamily.com initiated a campaign that helped to preserve some of the positions.
Then in 2009, the URJ did away with its regions and the remaining regional outreach positions, to be replaced by four outreach specialists who, as talented and dedicated as they are, are stretched awfully thin to serve all 900 Reform congregations. The Reform movement’s outreach department and initiative, once truly a jewel among the movement’s many programs, is in a sadly reduced state.
To be fair, we publicized excerpts from Rabbi Yoffie’s 2005 biennial speech — and those speeches are where the movement’s most important efforts are announced — highlighting two parallel initiatives, which the URJ still supports, to welcome non-Jewish spouses on the one hand, and to respectfully encourage conversion on the other. But program materials are one thing; staff whose job it is to promote and help with use of the materials is much more significant. I believe that the outreach department was a very “sellable” program – that funding could have been attracted for it – and that the movement’s leadership under Rabbi Yoffie’s direction did not give it the priority it deserved.
The URJ’s leadership may think that the Reform movement doesn’t need to do any thing more to attract interfaith couples and families. In the New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt reported that Rabbi Yoffie said that “his movement is the largest Jewish denomination because it has an “open door, inclusive” policy. ‘We are the place for the intermarried, gay or lesbian, and disabled to explore Judaism.’” I would argue that the Reform movement and Reform synagogues could do a great deal more to attract and welcome people in interfaith relationships – and that if they did, they would see membership increases that would help to alleviate the financial pressures that apparently continue to plague the movement and its synagogues.
As for the growing impact of intermarriage among American Jews, Yoffie said that his movement is handling the challenge well. He said that the movement has “not an ounce of regret” for its 1983 decision to consider the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to be Jewish, which represented a break with Jewish tradition.
Regarding studies that have found a lack of affiliation on the part of many children of intermarried couples, Yoffie said, “We’d like to point out that what that means is at a time when there’s an enormous amount of intermarriage, we’re getting a third of these people into synagogues… Imagine if we didn’t have the [patrilineal descent] decision and how many of them would be in any Jewish framework. I suggest it would be far lower.”
I’m glad to see Rabbi Yoffie re-affirm the patrilineal descent decision — and want to respectfully suggest that the number of intermarried couples that would be in a Jewish framework would be far, far greater if the Reform movement gave engaging them the priority it deserves.
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