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By Rabbi Robyn Frisch and Rabbi Malka Packer
Just like the approach of the secular new year, the approach of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year,Â is a great time to reflect on the past year and to make resolutions about how you can be better in the year ahead. (Click here to read how Jewish new year resolutions are different from secular new year resolutions.)
We propose that synagogues use this time to take stock of how theyâve been welcoming and inclusive to interfaith couples and families over the past year, and how they can be even more welcoming and inclusive in the year ahead. One way toÂ do this is to participate in InterfaithFamilyâs Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI). But even for those not participating in IILI, this is a great time of year to come up with an action plan of how they can be more welcoming and inclusive. Below are suggestions based on a webinar on âLanguage and Opticsâ that we are presenting to IILI participants. These suggestions are the combined work of a number of InterfaithFamily staff members over the years based on our vast experience working with interfaith couples and families. What is your synagogueâs response to each of the following questions? Based on your responses, you can see where you have work to do.
Hopefully these questions can help guide your synagogue in institutional cheshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul) at this time of the year and encourage an action plan for becoming more welcoming and inclusive of interfaith couples and families in the year ahead.
To learn more about InterfaithFamilyâs Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative click here.
For the past couple months, as I’ve settled into our office space at the San Francisco Federation building on Steuart Street, I’ve been surprised by how few Federation employees knew where we were. Since InterfaithFamily is an organization of welcoming and love, I decided this needed to change.
We began by re-envisioning our space. Where four desks once sat, we nowÂ have an open space working area with a desk, conference table, coffee/tea cart and some comfy couchesâall donated to us by the Federation or local friends who were redecorating their homes. We added some art, some greenery and a couple of great lamps that shine a natural light. Our space was ready to welcome visitors; now we just needed people.
Enter #WelcomeWaffleWednesday! A couple ofÂ Wednesdays ago, we brought in a gourmet coffee cart and waffle bar for all of the people who work in our building and the one next to us. With the delicious scent of waffles welcoming all who walked in the building and coffee so fresh you could taste it in the air around you, a diverse group of Jewish professionals joined us for treats and mingling. Along with introducing ourselves and our space to the building, we were excited to be blessed by our visitors.
About half of our guests, while waiting for their waffles to cook, participated in an activity where they decorated cutouts with words and pictures of blessing and good wishes. We shaped the cutouts like hamsas, a beautiful symbol of protection in Judaism and many other faiths and cultures. The hamsa, which is believed to protect us from evil, was enriched by the blessings of our visitors. They now hang on our walls along with our art, bringing beauty, love, community and blessings to all who enter our office.
Now that Wednesday is over, and the waffles are gone, I look back on these past few weeksÂ and a smile creeps over my face. I know this office welcome was just the beginning of a significant number of meaningful friendships and partnership opportunities. And the success of our event leaves me with one important conclusion: We need more #WelcomeWaffleWednesdays in this world!
âMeet Robyn,â my friend, who is Jewish, said with a smile as she introduced me to her Christian daughter-in-law. âSheâs an interfaith rabbi.â
Ugh! I cringed on the insideâthe same way I do when someone calls me a Reformed rabbi (rather than a Reform rabbi) or a âRent-A-Rabbi.â I thought to myself: Iâm not an interfaith rabbi. Iâm a rabbiâa Jewish rabbi. And what is an interfaith rabbi anyway? To me, the term âinterfaith rabbiâ sounds like a rabbi whose Judaism, and rabbi-ness, is somehow not purely and authentically Jewish.
Of course I knew what my friend intended. She wanted her daughter-in-law, who was in an interfaith marriage, to know that I was welcoming and open; that I wouldnât judge her marriage or look down on her husband because his wife isnât Jewish or her for being married to someone Jewish.
But stillâŚ Iâm not an âinterfaith rabbi.â What I am is a rabbi who proudly spends my time working with and advocating for interfaith couples and families.
There are many rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements who officiate interfaith weddings, and weâre all regular rabbis. Weâre rabbis who want to open wide the door to Judaism, and who want to bring Judaism to the most sacred moments in peopleâs lives. Weâre rabbis who donât judge a Jewâs commitment to Judaism by who theyâve fallen in love with and decided to marry. Weâre rabbis who feel blessed to work with Jews and the people they love and who love them.
So call us ânon-judgmental rabbis.â Call us âwelcoming rabbis.â Call us Rabbis. Just please donât call us âinterfaith rabbis.â
In all fairness, I realize the irony of my preferring not to be called an âinterfaith rabbiâ when I use the term âinterfaithâ all of the time. I often refer to âJewish interfaith familiesâ where one parent is Jewish and one isnât, whereas the family may identify simply as a âJewish family,â in which one parent just happens not to be Jewish. I realize that the term I, and the rest of us at InterfaithFamily use is less than ideal for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Jewish parent and/or the other parent may not see themselves as a person of âfaith.â But I use it because I donât have a better term or way of distinguishing the particular type of family with whom I work.
In my role as director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, I work with all sorts of different types of families with one Jewish parent and one parent who isnât Jewish, all of whom have a variety of blessings and challenges as a result of the parents having different religious backgrounds. I use the blanket term âJewish interfaith familyâ not because itâs ideal, but because it helpsâhopefullyâto make clear who these families are.
I realize that my friend who introduced me to her daughter-in-law was trying to do what I do: to describe what type of rabbi I was in a short-hand form, limited by the language we have. I know what she really meant was that Iâm an open-minded rabbi who works with interfaith couples and families, and she felt that by just saying ârabbi,â that wouldnât come across.
While it still may make me cringe on the inside, and Iâd prefer that you didnât, I will say that if you really have to, go ahead and call me an âinterfaith rabbi.â
But still please donât call me a Reformed rabbi or a âRent-A-Rabbi.â
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
Alongside theÂ negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and interfaith marriage.
Naomi Schaefer Riley has anÂ interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the Bânai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says
If thereâs one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, itâs the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isnât 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 âhypocriticalâ 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 couldnât in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders âhave no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.â Despite that, Riley does think the Bânai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.
In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples â after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding â is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, anÂ excellent article in theÂ Boston GlobeÂ about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing interfaith marriages not as a loss â âItâs not a minus one, itâs a plus one.â
Rubel says Honeymoon Israelâs goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but âto empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.â 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 âhad settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.â This is very important. It shows whatâs possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.
After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children â and thereâsÂ positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28Â percent of the families receiving PJ books and materials are interfaith familiesÂ and that interfaith families report even more favorable influence than families that are solely Jewish â for example, 89 percent of interfaithÂ families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67Â percent of families that are solely Jewish. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight interfaithÂ families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is âexcitingâ to see interfaith families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.
One of the reportâs conclusions is that âthere is room to grow the program among âŚ intermarried familiesâ 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. Itâs interesting that PJâs 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 JCCâs; thatâs not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than families that are solely Jewish; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.
The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books â with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying âmore cultural booksâŚ more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazingâ â other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying âWe value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.â Itâs very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about interfaith marriages are related to interfaith familiesâ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public settings and at home. But I applaud PJ Libraryâs efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.
After young interfaith families often come bânai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post hasÂ a very sweet storyÂ about two familiesâ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah â the fatherâs mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didnât have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs âto confirm their identity.â The fatherâs wife/boyâs mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldnât 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, âIâm still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. Iâm Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.â The son says, âThe tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.â One more proof of whatâs possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.
That interfaith marriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed inÂ a fascinating episode on interfaith marriageÂ on the BBC radio show “All Things Considered.” The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the U.K., a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50 percent of U.K. Jews are now in interfaith marriages, and that more U.K. Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples â as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas â for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesusâ divinity.
Finally, theÂ new rabbi at Montrealâs 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 âmakes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.â And Keren McGinity persuasively presentsÂ the need for Jewish professionals to study interfaith marriage.
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
IÂ applaudedÂ in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movementâs audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of theÂ Audacious Hospitality ToolkitÂ 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 movementâs own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism andÂ 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,Â Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, forÂ Reform JudaismÂ magazine, and a longerÂ We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish FamiliesÂ for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include â indeed, embrace â not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as âin,â as part of âus,â as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as âout,â âother,â not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person âisâ Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to âdoâ Jewish.
Itâs 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, âitâs wonderful that your daughter has a partner â but wouldnât you prefer that she were straight?â No, he wouldnât, thank you.
The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and Iâve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said âis she Jewishâ? right in front of my daughterâs 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 âsub-optimal.â
Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children arenât âreallyâ Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like âger toshavâ 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 donât want their childrenâs status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more âinâ or âoutâ and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies â 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 âusâ 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 anÂ aliyahÂ 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 theÂ Cohen Centerâs recent researchÂ 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 synagogueâs clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCARâs 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. Thatâs why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionistsâ 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 âdo both.â 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 â 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 â they mostly get ânoâ for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most wonât 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 havenât decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we donât have to recommend or favor raising children as âboth,â 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 â yes, a truly audacious â hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and donât 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?
Being from an interfaith family has influenced my life in myriad ways, most especially in my choice to focus my rabbinate on working with other interfaith families. Iâve written about my own upbringing and my parents several times over my tenure at InterfaithFamily, hoping that my own experiences might resonate with our readers. Yet, so far, everything I have shared has been in my voice and from my perspective. So, in honor of Motherâs Day and to honor my mother, I interviewed her to finally shine some light on her perspective.
I asked her a variety of questions about her early life and meeting my dad and then about how they made decisions about religion as they had children. While we have had many conversations throughout my life touching on similar topics, I have never sat down with my mother and asked her what it was like for her to be in an interfaith family, especially long before it was as accepted as it is now.
My mom is a special woman; quiet and thoughtful, passionate yet relaxed. I am the Jew, the rabbi, the human being I am because of her and my dad. I hope you enjoy a piece of her story.
Some background: My mother, Kathy, was one of five children born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts in a very Polish Catholic family. When she was 18, she packed her bags and headed to college, the first in her family to attend, where she met my father Richard, a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey. They were married by a justice of the peace in 1972 in Boston.
Me: When you were dating, did you ever have conversations about how you were from different backgrounds/religions?
Mom: We didnât really have a big conversation. Neither of us were particularly active in our religions. I grew up in a pretty Catholic family. My grandmother lived with us and was from Poland. The church was her life. She grew flowers and every day brought them to put on the alterâit was within walking distance from the house. I never personally felt that connection even though, as a child, I attended every Sunday.
Richardâs family wasnât particularly religious either. He wasnât practicing Judaism when I met him. So obviously, we were more concerned about what our parents would think as opposed to what we were going to do together.
Me: When you did decide to get married, how did your family react?
Mom: There were certain members of my family, some aunts, who didnât think it was right.Â My grandmother, who lived with us, wasnât supportive. They didnât come to our wedding. It stung not having them at my wedding, but it didnât disturb me for any length of time. But my parents and my sisters and brother were all on board after talking it through. It was just the way my parents were. They were very accepting and compromising and after having a conversation, my father said, âItâs your life, you make the decision.â And after that there were no repercussions.
Me: Did you know any other people who were also marrying someone from a different religion?
Mom: We went to college in Boston and there were a lot of people from the New York/New Jersey area and Massachusetts. So we were meeting different people all the time. My roommate, who was Catholic, met a Jewish guy from New Jersey and they were also married, a little after we were married. A couple of other people we knew in a similar situation also married. There didnât seem to be a barrier. It was kind of exciting to meet someone who was different. And religion never seemed to be a problem. It was the end of the â60s: These old barriers were meant to be broken.
Me: What was the conversation about who was going to officiate at your wedding?
Mom: We wanted a Justice of the Peace because it would just make it easier. Neither of us were connected to a synagogue or church and we felt that would be the easiest and cleanest. It wouldnât be favoring one over the other. We didnât care. We really didnât take religion into account at that point.
Me: In the first years of your marriage, before you had children, did you have any connection to religion?
Mom: For the first 10 years of our marriage, before we had children, we were a-religious. We might have gone to a family friendâs house for Passover once, or Christmas at my parentâs house, but never at our home. Because my upbringing was pretty rote (learn the Catechism, study the prayers, follow whatever you needed to do), it didnât feel relevant to my life at all. Judaism seemed interesting to me.
Me: When you were planning to have children, did you have any conversations about religion?
Mom: Recognizing we had two families each with different religions, we thought, weâll wait until our child is old enough to choose. It lasted for a little while, but it was naĂŻve to think that a child was going to grow up without a religion and suddenly pick one. When you were a baby, we thought that us teaching you would be enough.
Me: When did we start having any religion in our lives?
Mom: Well you know this story, Jillian. You had a friend named Julie, who was Jewish. She invited you go to her Hebrew School class and you came home and asked. You knew your dadâs family was Jewish and mine was Catholic. We did explain this to you, that one family celebrated certain things and the other family celebrated other things. We wanted you to experience the world, so we said yes to you going to Hebrew School. But this came as a surprise to us.Â We were cringing that now we would have to deal with this issue.
So you went, loved it and asked if you could go again. And we thought, uh oh, this is the beginning. So we went to the temple to check it out and we spoke to a few people and were told we had to join, even though we were not eager to join. But we joined, so you could go to Hebrew School.
It was a Reform synagogue, so there was never a problem with me not being Jewish. They were eager to have us and they welcomed us wholeheartedly.
Me:Â What was your experience at synagogue?
Mom: It was like deer in the headlights! When do I stand or sit, what do I do? It was just a totally foreign way of having a religion as opposed to Catholicism. I was confused but learning as I went along. I felt welcome, everyone was very nice. We met a lot of older members of the synagogue who were thrilled we were there, and we are still friends with them now. It was a great community to be a part of. After learning more about Judaism, talking with people, listening to the Rabbi, I realized that this is a whole different animal than Catholicism. It was more about finding meaning, things you could bring into your life. It wasnât about memorizing; it was about thinking and challenging yourself. When I caught onto that, I thought, this is interesting to be a part of. It was a better religious experience for me than I had as a child.
Me: The question I canât believe I donât know the answer to: If someone were to ask you now what religion you are, what would you say?
Mom:Â I would say Iâm Jewish, just to make it easier.Â I never converted, so I know Iâm not technically Jewish.Â But from a view of the world, a philosophy, I am.
My momâs story might be a bit like yours. Perhaps you related to a few things she said, remembered feeling similarly or maybe your story is vastly different. Whichever the case, telling and listening to stories is such a wonderfully and necessary human thing to do. We learn from each other, we gain perspective, we feel connected and less alone when we take the time to listen and learn about each other.
Finally, I want to thank my mother, Kathy Cameron, for being open with me, allowing me to make her story public and for being the best mom a girl could ask for. Happy Motherâs Day, Mom.
Want to honor someone special this Mother’s Day? Make a donation to InterfaithFamily in their honor.
Recently I read two thought-provoking articles in the Jewish press: Rabbi Elliot Cosgoveâs article in the New York Jewish Week, âMikveh Can Solve Conversion Problemâ and Rabbi Shaul Magidâs article in The Forward âWhy Conversion Lite Wonât Fix The Intermarriage Problem.âÂ Like so many articles dealing with issues related to interfaith marriage, the headlines of both articles contained the word âproblem.â
I realize that, when someone writes an article, the headline they propose often isnât the one ultimately used. I have written several articles which have then been published with different headlines than the ones I proposedâin fact, I often donât know what the article is going to be called until I see it online or in print. Editors give headlines to articles that they think will attract readers. And so, I presume that it wasnât Rabbi Cosgrove or Rabbi Magid who decided to use the word âproblemâ in the headline of either of their articles about interfaith marriage (though in the first sentence of his article Rabbi Magid stated that intermarriage is âarguably the most pressing problem of 21st century American Jewryâ). But, the editors of the articles did choose to use the word and I find that disturbing.
For too long, the Jewish community has referred to interfaith marriage as a problem. It implies that the people in those marriagesâthe Jewish partner as well as the partner from a different backgroundâare also problems for the Jewish community. As a community, weâve been talking out of both sides of our mouth. On the one hand, we spend our resources (both time and money) trying to figure out how to engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life, and on the other hand, we tell these people that theyâre a problem. So, hereâs a statement of the obvious: If we want to engage people in interfaith relationships, letâs stop referring to their relationships, and thus to them, as a problem.
Throughout the four years that Iâve been working for InterfaithFamily, a national organization whose mission is to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life and to advocate for the inclusion of people in interfaith relationships in the Jewish community, Iâve been especially sensitive to the language thatâs used in the Jewish community to speak about people in interfaith relationships. Iâm constantly struck by the negative nature of the language we use, even today, with an intermarriage rate of over 71 percent for Jews who arenât Orthodox. We hear about the âproblemsâ and âchallengesâ of interfaith relationships and we see classes on âthe December Dilemmaâ and so forth. The focus is almost exclusively on the negative.
Iâm proud to work for an organization that seeks to reframe the discussion and change the language we use when talking about intermarriage. Language doesnât just reflect the way we think; it also shapes the way we think. At InterfaithFamily, we speak about the challenges *and* blessings of being in an interfaith relationship and we offer classes on âthe December Dialogueâ or âthe December Discussion.â
We at InterfaithFamily also advocate for framing discussions about interfaith marriage not as how we can solve a problem, but rather as how we can view interfaith marriage as an opportunityâan opportunity not simply to increase our numbers in the Jewish community, but also for the Jewish community to evolve in a rich and meaningful way, with people who did not grow up Jewish bringing new insights and perspectives as they choose to engage in Jewish life.
I ask the editors of the Jewish press and others in the Jewish community to join us in our effort to reconsider the language being used to discuss interfaith marriage. Please, whether you see interfaith marriage as an opportunity or not, stop calling it a problem. At the very least, why not just name it as what it is, and what itâs sure to remain in the future: reality. Once we accept this reality, and stop referring to it as a problem to be solved, we can surely have a more productive conversation about how to best engage people in interfaith relationships in Jewish life in a way thatâs meaningful for them and for the future of Judaism and the Jewish community.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that âthe Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.â He wants to âmeet people where they are,â and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be âfully observant.â
I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I donât have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and âdoableâ will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married âwhere they areâ is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.
As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:
We really donât understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of âpolite societyâ said at the advent of racial intermarriageâŚ.
If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status â so they leave.
Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:
I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.
Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would âlevel the playing field of Jewish identityâ â and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all bânai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.
But these are band-aids that donât address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be âpassionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.â Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples â all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.
This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission
News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.
First, I was so pleased to learn that Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.
Thatâs right â an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: âAt RomemuÂ theÂ diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.âÂ I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the âStrangers No Moreâ program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.
But thereâs more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.
Second, and about the same time, the JTA ran an important and I think related story by Ben Sales, Outside the Synagogue, Intermarried are Forming Community With Each Other. He writes that interfaith couples are finding Jewish connection through a range of initiatives aimed at intermarried or unaffiliated couples, mentioning Honeymoon Israel and Circles of Welcome at the JCC Manhattan, among others.
Julie Wiener just wrote a great short history of the intermarriage debate for MyJewishLearning.com â one of her subtitles is âFrom Taboo to Commonplaceâ â that alludes to interfaith families finding community in new and alternative forms of organization when discussing resources for interfaith families.
As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says âIt was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. Thereâs a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.â One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds âto ask questions in a safe space.â
Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources âbecause of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.â (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)
Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that âWhen it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selvesâŚ in America that means being inclusive of [those who are not Jewish] and other friends.â I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61 percent of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)
Rubel also says that interfaith couples are âuncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for [those who are not Jewish]âŚ.â â and thatâs more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.
The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, âare not meant for [those who are not Jewish]â or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say âwe are not meant for [those who are not Jewish];â Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.
I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are âthe people who fit the demographic of the active groupâ â referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,
It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not âmeant for Jewsâ that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not âmeant for Jewsâ but instead are âmeant forâ Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are âfor Jewsâ but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionistsâ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.
Thereâs an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews wonât remain forever separate, and sees her program âas a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.â She hopes her program wonât need to exist in the future.
But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: âthese are the people who get usâŚ [t]his is our community.â The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.
Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemuâs benefit, âAwaken Your Voice,â on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success â it deserves to be.