More Shifting Ground

  

choices

It’s been busy the past two weeks. As Shmuel Rosner just pointed out, since his original article a month ago, “The volume of writing on Jewish interfaith marriage in America is high.”

Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether interfaith marriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that “arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.”

Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that “arguing that sticking with in-marriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. In-marriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis officiating – disapprove of insistence on Jewish couples and relationships.”

That is a false equivalency, in my view. There can’t be any question that decrying interfaith marriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on “in-marriage” doesn’t work. No one is arguing that Jews marrying Jews is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of Jewish-Jewish marriages. Interfaith marriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with Jews who marry Jews; they can co-exist. It’s the insistence that there is only one right way that’s the problem.

Rosner says a Conservative rabbi who refers to “the naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they build” is right. How anyone can hold that position after the Cohen Center’s latest research showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites an article by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to “actively” encourage conversion, and an interesting “descriptive, not opinionated” analysis by Emma Green in the Atlantic.)

The Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment on eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says “If the person I walk down the aisle with isn’t Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?” and “72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is … about Jewish apathy.” Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer “holds outdated views that intermarriage… divorce from the Jewish community,” while another says “this resentment of people in interfaith relationships has got to stop.”

Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journalsays:

But I know — we all know — too many wonderful intermarried couples. They continue to serve the community as volunteers, funders, activists. They raise children who go on to practice Judaism, embody its values and contribute to the Jewish community and the world. They succeed at being Jewish far, far better than any number of “in-married” Jewish couples who stay uncurious and uninvolved, whose biggest contribution to Jewish life was paying the rabbi who married them.

This truth puts rabbis and movements who resist intermarriage in the same bind as many were before acknowledging same-sex marriage. How do you exclude a committed, loving constituency, willing to belong and contribute to Jewish life, from meaningful Jewish rituals? Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?

The ground has shifted on this issue, and something tells me we’re about to find the answer.

One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells “How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue“: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and “turned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.” If she hadn’t, “that could have been the end of Judaism for me… I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.” This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that I’ve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesn’t officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:

If they do choose a non-Jewish partner, and try to find a rabbi to marry them, will they be accepted and counseled warmly and openly? Will their interest in honoring their Jewish heritage with a Jewish-style wedding be respected and appreciated? Or will they be made to feel that they are being judged for marrying the person with whom they have fallen in love, who happens not to be Jewish? Will they feel unwelcome in the very synagogues and communities which raised them?

An outstanding example of a cantor who “gets it” is Erik Contzius, who says “Let’s Stop Calling It ‘Intermarriage.’” He used to not officiate, but “Coming to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.”

I can almost guarantee that a couple of divergent religions will not affiliate, identify, or become otherwise involved with the Jewish community if they are turned away and thus invalidated by Jewish clergy who tell them that they will not officiate at their wedding.

Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi, reports that he “encountered fierce opposition” to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and “ adopting a posture of radical hospitality,” but steadfastly believes that “providing a space that caters to every Jew’s spiritual needs — even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith — is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.”

Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers “Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That“:

So when the Conservative Movement grapples publicly with whether or not their rabbis should maybe consider a way to possibly be less than fully rejectionist, the arguments for inclusion are what we [secular humanists] have been saying and living for 40 years. We who have celebrated interfaith and intercultural families for a generation are pleased to have company, but like the woman in a board meeting whose ideas are overlooked until repeated by a man, we are not amazed. Better late than never, and better now than later, and still better to recognize that you are late to the party.

 

Today the Reform Movement trumpets its “audacious hospitality”, the Conservative Movement will accept non-Jews as members (with limited privileges), and intermarriage-friendly rabbis are easily found online at InterfaithFamily.com. The one piece missing in most of this dialogue is, “we’re sorry, we were wrong.” For the thousands of couples, families, and children pushed away by Jewish communal shortsightedness over the past decades, some teshuva (repentance) might also be helpful.

Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. “Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman” (an edited version of a longer piece on Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on

…a dishonest sociology…, promulgated by a handful of academicians who’ve been at it for decades…. Shmuel Rosner, a reporter who contributed to this latest effort, displays this confusion when he writes, “interfaith marriage leads to eventual assimilation.” Such purposeful oversimplification is not sociology, it’s smear. “Assimilation” is not the story we’ve seen for huge swaths of intermarried households. Intermarried Jews are involved in all Jewish denominations and most organizations. There are literally hundreds of thousands of exceptions to the supposed rule.

Golin argues that theism is the problem – most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that “When there’s no magical ‘Jewish gene’ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?” But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.

In his second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinate’s claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leaders’ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew “not Jewish enough.” I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: “policing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of who’s doing it.”

Couples are marrying with or without us. Let’s help.

  

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The debate in Jewish communities about interfaith marriage is heating up. Rabbis and Jewish professionals are arguing both sides and predicting the future of Judaism based on whether or not they will officiate at interfaith marriages. I’ve seen articles that talk about “caving on intermarriage” and “coming to terms with it” and “addressing the problem.” This kind of language infuriates me because it makes interfaith marriage about the rabbis, and not about the people getting married.

It’s not about caving on interfaith marriage.
It’s not about settling or coming to terms with it.
It’s not an issue.
It’s not a problem.

By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What we’re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.

We need to change the way we talk about interfaith marriage. It’s not a disease. It’s not a shameful act. It’s a beautiful reflection of the world in which we live. It’s about people who have strong identities and familial connections, who are secure enough in who they are that they can love someone with a different background. Interfaith marriage is an amazing example of people with different experiences coming together and finding common ground.

When I took the job as director of InterfaithFamily/LA I was terrified that my rabbinic colleagues would turn their backs on me and lose respect for me. What actually happened is beautiful. My colleagues have said, “Thanks for doing the work that I’m not allowed to do.”

So many of my rabbinic colleagues come to me for advice on working with an interfaith couple who has approached them for a lifecycle event, usually a wedding. These colleagues don’t deal with this scenario frequently, but know that I work with interfaith couples every day. The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that “We accept you and your partner” and also, “I cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets.” These couples often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting with an interfaith couple who has been turned away by another rabbi, I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.

One such couple came to me through our officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily, looking for a rabbi to talk to about marriage. In my first meeting with this couple—a Jewish woman and a man who was raised mostly agnostic—they said, “We never even imagined we could have a Jewish ceremony. We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now we’re excited to have a rabbi.” I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing “No, you’re not welcome here” either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.

Just this morning I had a conversation with Becky Herring, a Jewish professional and the new associate director of our Atlanta office. She recently got engaged and this was her experience: “My fiancé is not Jewish and when we talked about who would officiate our wedding, he didn’t want a rabbi because he was worried he’d feel uncomfortable. I totally get it. The thought never dawned on me; I just thought rabbis were rabbis. And then I met Rabbi Malka [director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta] and it was amazing to see that she would work with us.”

I do this work every day. And I love it. I feel that working with interfaith families makes a true impact not only in their lives, but in the larger Jewish community.

I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple.

Families are complicated and most people’s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.

Whether or not we (the rabbis) decide interfaith marriage is OK, doesn’t matter.  People are not choosing to end relationships and find Jewish partners just because a rabbi has told them she won’t marry them. While we rabbis are sitting in our offices behind the walls of synagogues and institutions, people are falling in love, getting married and trying to find their place in Jewish communities.

Let’s help.

Photo credit: Tom The Photographer

Will We Automate Religion in 2016?

  

Marjorie PrimeI just saw the play Marjorie Prime written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Kimberly Senior at Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, IL. The premise of the play is that it’s the age of artificial intelligence, but 86-year-old Marjorie is worried that her memory may be fading. That is until the appearance of Walter, a mysterious and charming young visitor programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her own past. As Walter’s true nature is revealed, new levels of complexity emerge, leading to profound questions about the limits of technology and whether memory might be a purely human invention. Walter is a Prime—a robot of sorts who can act like Siri times a million. He is sort of like a person and the lines between robot and human are blurred.

Certainly writers and thinkers from Kurt Vonnegut to present day Martine Rothblatt have been wondering about these same questions. I recently heard a report on NPR which details how cars are going to become “smarter and smarter.” In the years to come, our refrigerators will be able to sense when we need milk and that will alert the grocery delivery service to bring it over. The lines between thinking and computing will be hazy. Much of our lives will be able to be automated. Ordering food, house cleaning and driving cars could all be automatic. They will not involve us having to think, plan work or do.

So, where does this leave religion? Being a rabbi is one job that I don’t think can be automated. When I sit with a couple to talk about their families, how they were raised and what’s important to them, we need to see each other and sense each other. Emails, Facetime and following each other on Facebook definitely fills in gaps and builds rapport quicker than before these technologies were used. It helps me get to know couples and get a sense for their vibe and their style, but nothing replaces one-on-one time together.

Marking lifecycle moments from the promises and hopes two committed adults share in front of their family and friends to the arrival of a baby, to honoring someone’s life at the time of their death, or studying with someone and helping them to ritually announce that they want to identify and live as a Jew: These are times that we need to be in person. With that said, there have been dozens of times during these events when someone has set up an iPad with Skype so that an elderly grandparent or a friend far away can “be” there with us.

There is a power in gatherings. Joining your voice with others, knowing that those standing with you share something important is the precious part of community. Judaism is about the senses: it’s about holding, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting. You can get an app for sounding the shofar or lighting a virtual menorah but there is nothing like seeing the flickering flame in a window with the dark night behind it. There is no other noise like the alarm of the ram’s horn during the long blast marking the end of an epic day of prayer.

So, while I cannot wait to see what phones, cars and refrigerators will be like in the next five or so years, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace the moments of humanity when we need one another to be close. I don’t think a Prime or any version of Siri will replace humans coming together to try to organize, mark, find meaning in and celebrate life…do you?

Do Today’s Women Understand What/Who Came Before Us?

  
Anita Hill and Letty Pogrebin

Anita Hill and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Photo by Zanefa Walsh

The first week of September I was privileged to introduce a discussion at Brandeis University between Anita Hill and Letty Cottin Pogrebin about faith, feminism and race. The discussion was framed by Pogrebin’s new book, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate.

Without ruining the book for those who haven’t picked it up yet, the main character, Zach, early on in the book promises his mother, a Holocaust survivor that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children (you can read more about it here). This promise is made at a young age, before the randomness and magnitude of life has the chance to impact Zach, and he tries to make his choices based on this promise. As you might imagine, it proves difficult and has a long lasting impact on his integrity and morality as the book continues. While the book is heavy with interfaith decision-making, interracial and intercultural issues and a variety of incarnations of feminism, the conversation between these two prolific authors was one devoted largely to generational division.

The question arose, “What do we really owe our parents?”

Pogrebin and Hill spoke not of interfaith or racial concerns when thinking through this question but rather of feminism. Do the women coming of age today understand what and who came before them that enables them to make the choices they make today? What sort of reverence or respect do second wave feminists deserve even if third or even fourth wave feminists make different—or  even opposite—decisions about their lives, their bodies or their politics. The questions are easier to ask than answer. While I am no feminist scholar I understand the motivation behind these questions and the concerns, especially in the context of the complex and diverse interfaith population.

Rabbi Jillian

Jillian (left) waiting to introduce the speakers. Photo by Zanefa Walsh

We do owe our parents and those who came before us respect, not merely for existing, and perhaps in having a hand in our existence, but also because they want to make the world better for us. We benefit from their hand in the evolution of the world. We benefit from what was bestowed upon us: the values, the cultural and/or religious ideology taught, the opportunities provided whether big or small, the love given.

Now I am not too cockeyed optimistic to understand that far too many people don’t have good parents and the evolution of our world has had long reaching negative consequences. But I am not willing to give up and I don’t think you are either. So we can respect and revere those on whose shoulders we stand and take up our own mantle of evolution, perhaps righting some wrongs not yet accomplished. For an inspiring look at this topic, see Dr. Ruth Nemzoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post advising the next generation about how to promote feminism.

Zach’s life was ruled by what he felt he owed his mother and each of us live with expectations from those who raised us, deserved or not, realistic or not, achieved or not. I spend a fair amount of time counseling parents/grandparents/family members about the expectations they have carried with them for their children, whether it is something they could never accomplish themselves, or a life a bit better than theirs, a higher paying job, security, loving and marrying someone of the same faith background, raising children of that faith, etc. Sometimes children grow up aware of these hopes and dreams, sometimes they aren’t verbalized, but all parents have expectations for their children. It’s natural, it’s expected, and it’s what should happen. Inevitably though, each person turns out to want, care about, excel at or love different things. The trick is: How do we mourn the loss of our expectations without asking our children to bear the weight of that loss?

For some it comes easier than others; some expectations are easier to let to go; while others linger like heartbreak. Maybe the question becomes: What do we owe our children?

The world is not perfect and neither are we, but I think we owe our children a chance. A chance to make their own decisions, to trust in their capabilities and the opportunities we provided—the values and heritage we taught. We owe our children the love they need from us, to right past wrongs, to continue that evolution, to find fulfillment in ways we never could have imagined, let alone expected.

And together, we owe ourselves a little bit of hope and faith. Hope that each generation can and will achieve more and faith that this achievement reflects the best of humanity. Hope that each of our rich histories and sense of heritage and culture will endure and faith that we will continue to seek and create relevance in them. Hope that we get what we want and faith that we get what we need.

Please join in this conversation with me, there is so much we learn from one another.

A New CEO: What’s Next For IFF

  
Jodi headshot

Jodi Bromberg, CEO

As you may know from Ed Case’s blog post last week, this is a very exciting time in the history of InterfaithFamily. Three years ago, Ed and the Board of Directors began thinking about and creating a transition plan—a plan that included Ed’s desire to remain involved in the organization, but not, as he would put it, “in charge.”

So about two years ago, IFF began looking for a president—someone who could work with Ed, learn about the organization from the inside, and when the time was right, become the CEO. At the time, I was a disenchanted lawyer looking for an opportunity to have a more meaningful impact on the world, and when I saw the job announcement, I thought, “Well, that’d be a dream job.”

You see, I’ve been a fan of InterfaithFamily’s work for a long time—in my personal inbox, I have IFF’s email newsletters dating back to 2005, when my now-spouse and I started dating, and I started thinking, “Well, I really ought to figure out whether I can build a life with someone who’s not Jewish.” Like many of you, I found solace in the stories of the people I read about on InterfaithFamily’s website, and inspiration from its resources: The only reason my kids say the Shema before bed every night is because I took IFF/Philadelphia’s “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” class with Tami Astorino, and it seemed like a good idea.

I was thrilled when, after seven rounds of interviews spanning the East Coast, I became the president of InterfaithFamily. My family and I packed up our home in Philadelphia and headed north to Boston, and the day the Pew Report came out, I began working at InterfaithFamily.

Tomorrow, 16 months later, we take the next step forward in that plan, as I become the CEO and Ed transitions to the new position of Founder.

The conventional wisdom is that founders should depart when successor CEOs take over. But that’s not the right model for us. For us, the “mutual success” strategy is what makes sense—the one where Ed will remain on as the Founder of IFF, focused on what he does best—advocacy and key funding relationships. As IFF Board Chair Lynda Schwartz said to me once, “Don’t be afraid to do what makes sense.” And for us, this transition makes sense.

One of the key reasons it makes sense is Ed. We have logged a lot of hours and miles together on planes, trains and automobiles. We’ve eaten in some of the best and worst restaurants around the country. Ed has been a mentor, a guide, a source of humor and wisdom. He is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met—with his time, with his resources, with himself. And it is his drive and get-it-done-now attitude that have been the force behind IFF’s growth. I am so very glad he’s staying on in his new role, because I count him as a trusted advisor, and will continue to do so—and he’s got important work still to do. We will all have an opportunity to thank him on October 22 at a special day of learning and appreciation that we’re planning in Boston.

We are a very different organization than we were when I joined in October 2013. We have more than doubled the size of our staff to 24 (and soon to 29) and launched communities in Boston and Los Angeles, an affiliate in Cleveland—with Atlanta and a community for another major city to come later this year. We’ve added capacity to our national staff to better support what’s going on in local communities, and to increase our advocacy and training efforts.

I often say that the hardest part of our work is finding the right people to join our team—and it is a remarkable team, without exception. We work hard with too-few resources, and the only reason we get as much accomplished as we do is because we have a smart, savvy accomplished staff, and a board that’s got our back every step of the way. I am grateful for their collective know-how, smarts and commitment to the hard work we do. I am especially thankful for COO Heather Martin, who has been a friend from the beginning and has clarity of purpose, the ability to make things happen—and a way of making it look easy.

We are, of course, not done. I am humbled by both the responsibility and opportunity to continue to play a role in helping shape a world where interfaith families see the value, relevance and joy in making Jewish choices—and are accepted by the Jewish community in doing so. My promise to you is that we will do everything we can to support interfaith families, and those who want to work with them. Together with your input and collaboration, we will continue this important work.

Over the next months, I hope to meet many more of you than I already have, and deepen the relationships I’ve begun with many others of you, to thank you for your commitment and to share how we will continue to expand our work. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out and share your thoughts, your family story and your hopes for the Jewish future. My door is always open.

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Jodi Bromberg can be reached at jodib at interfaithfamily dot com