Patrilineal Descent: Should the Baby be Taken to the Mikveh for Conversion?

PregnantDo you know which of the following children would be considered Jewish without going through a conversion according to halacha (traditional Jewish law)?

a)      A child born from the sperm of a Jewish male and the egg of a Jewish female, who was carried by a surrogate who was not Jewish and then raised by her Jewish biological parents.

b)      The child of a biological father who was not Jewish and a biological mother who was not Jewish at the time of conception but who had a traditional Jewish conversion two days before giving birth to the child, who is adopted at birth and raised by parents who are not Jewish.

c)       The biological child of a Jewish father and a mother who is not Jewish at the time she gives birth but later converts to Judaism, who is raised as a Jew by his biological parents.

In fact, only the child in (b) is considered Jewish according to halacha. The only factor that matters in determining the Jewish “status” of a child is the religion of the woman who gives birth to the child at the time she gives birth. Whether the biological father is Jewish; whether adoptive parents are Jewish; whether a biological mother is Jewish if she is not the one who gives birth to the child; even whether the child is raised as a Jew…all of these factors are not relevant in determining whether the child is Jewish according to halacha. (For discussion of this issue by a Conservative Rabbi CLICK HERE.)

The issue of “Who is a Jew?” can be confusing; it can seem illogical, and at times unfair. Due to the traditional Jewish rule of “matrilineal descent,” when a birth-mother is Jewish—regardless of how (or by whom) the child is raised—the child is Jewish according to halacha. But when the father is Jewish (or, in the case of adoption or surrogacy, both parents may be Jewish) but the birth mother is not Jewish, even if the child is raised as a Jew, he is not Jewish according to halacha.

Nancy and Drew (not their real names) were aware of the traditional Jewish requirement of matrilineal descent when they sat in my office recently, Nancy six months pregnant with their first child, a girl. Drew, who is Jewish, and Nancy, a practicing Catholic, had decided that any children they had would be raised as Jews.  “So,” Nancy said to me, her hand resting on top of her growing belly, “how long after the baby is born should we take her to the mikveh (the ritual bath which is used for conversion to Judaism)?”

As a Reform Rabbi, I was somewhat taken aback by Nancy’s question. It has been years since the Reform Movement began recognizing “patrilineal descent” (i.e., the child can be recognized as a Jew if the father is Jewish, even if the mother is not Jewish). Drew grew up in a Reform synagogue, and he and Nancy had even begun to discuss joining a local Reform synagogue, where nobody would ever question the Jewishness of their daughter. Why, I wondered, did they feel a need to convert their daughter to Judaism when she would already be Jewish? To me, a conversion would be not only unnecessary, but problematic, since it would imply that the baby wasn’t “really” Jewish even though Drew was Jewish and she would be raised as a Jew.

And so I asked the couple why they wanted to convert their daughter, since it wasn’t necessary. Their response was simple and practical: “What if we end up at a Conservative synagogue one day, or what if our daughter grows up and wants to be married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi? We wouldn’t want her to feel that her being Jewish is in question, so we figured it’s best to ‘cover all of the bases’ while she’s a baby. This way, more people will consider her to be Jewish.”

I understood where they were coming from. After all, if they decided at some point to join a Conservative synagogue—even one that was very welcoming of interfaith families—since “patrilineal descent” isn’t recognized by the Conservative movement, their daughter might be allowed to be enrolled in Religious School without converting, but she would have to convert before being allowed to become a Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue. Wouldn’t it make sense, they reasoned, for them to take her to the mikveh while she was still a baby? Then, if they did join a Conservative synagogue at some point, they wouldn’t have to tell her at the age of 12 that she had to go to the mikveh because she wasn’t “really” Jewish according to the standards of her community.

I understood and respected their motivation to shield their daughter from the potential future pain of having her Jewishness questioned…of being told by others that because her mother wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t Jewish, even though she’d been living as a Jew her entire life and had always identified as a Jew. My own daughter, simply because she was born to a Jewish mother, will never have to endure such painful questioning of her identity by others; why should Nancy and Drew have to worry that their daughter would have to deal with such questioning?

But still, I felt that by embracing Nancy and Drew’s “solution” to “convert” a child that I would already consider Jewish, I wouldn’t be holding true to my belief in the legitimacy of “patrilineal descent.” And so while I acknowledged the benefits of the couple “converting” their daughter while she was still a baby, I also expressed my concerns.

Whether Nancy or Drew will take their daughter to a mikveh for conversion while she is still a baby is their decision to make, and I will honor whatever decision they come to. But it saddens me that they have to make such a decision: choosing between their own liberal Jewish beliefs and the desire for their daughter to be recognized as a Jew by the larger Jewish community.

What would you do in Nancy and Drew’s situation? Would you take your child to the mikveh? What if the child were adopted and neither of the biological parents were Jewish?

Lilith: The Quintessential Jewish Outsider

Lilith

Artwork by Phil Blank

I went to an edgy opera recently called, Lilith the Night Demon in One Lewd Act. Lilith isn’t mentioned in the book of Genesis, but the opera based itself on early Jewish tales of a woman who was created before Eve in the Garden of Eden. Unlike Eve, who was born out of Adam’s side, Lilith was created from the earth at the same moment as Adam. They fought about everything, especially her refusal to assume his desired sexual position. Adam made it clear to God that he didn’t appreciate this insubordination and wanted her out. Lilith left in a huff, followed by three angels who implored her to return to the Garden of Eden. When she refused, they told her that she would spend eternity as a demon, bearing and killing hundreds of demon babies daily. With Lilith gone, Eve was created, destined to play the obedient and submissive “good girl” to Lilith’s strong-willed and demanding “bad girl.” The legend also provided a rationale for the high numbers of babies and women dying in childbirth. Lilith became the scapegoat for the unexplained mysteries of life and death.

Lilith rose in contemporary times as a model of strength, and has an all-woman folk music festival named for her as well as a Jewish feminist magazine. Treating her as a feminist icon, we often conveniently forget the part of the story when she turns into a baby-killing demon. Or perhaps we quietly recognize that so often women have been metaphorically demonized when they demanded personhood.

But Lilith is also beloved because she is the quintessential outsider, allowing us to easily identify with her. It is an epidemic in Judaism to believe that each of us stands outside of some inner sanctum peeking in. In truth, I have met a handful of Jews who don’t feel this way.  But many more share this uneasy feeling that we are the only ones who don’t know enough: We don’t know what’s going on during services, we don’t have the right parentage, we don’t know the Yiddish or Hebrew that is tossed around in conversation. We aren’t wealthy like other Jews. We were not born Jewish, or we are in an interfaith relationship. Like a kid on the school playground, many Jews and people who spend time in Jewish communities see ourselves as the kid left out of the club. Other people are the ones who really belong. If only we knew that most everyone feels this way.

Unfortunately, too many of us have actually been told at one time or another that we don’t quite fit an internal stereotypical image of what a Jew should be, or aren’t following the rules. This is natural within a community that defines itself both as one people, yet also contains within it many distinct ways of defining itself. Furthermore, throughout our history, Judaism has had to create walls to define who is in and who is out for its own survival and we still struggle over the height of those boundaries. Reality, yes. But it still hurts.

The problem is, I see us “othering” ourselves. Once we feel or are told that there is a bias against us, we often glorify our place on the outside. We revel in it. We define ourselves by it. We become Lilith peeking in at what everyone else is doing in the Garden of Eden.

There was a time in my life when I identified strongly with the figure of Lilith. I was a rabbinical student dating someone who wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t even know if I would finish my studies to become a rabbi. I felt like a boundary-breaker and wanted to own it. Perhaps even to flaunt it. I studied Lilith. I wrote about Lilith. I read every reference to her I could get my hands on. Except for the baby-killing part of the story, I wanted to be her. But I received some good advice from a trusted mentor to be wary of overly identifying with her. She was right. I was basking in my feelings of otherness. If I had stayed there, I wouldn’t have been able to see myself as a change-maker from inside Judaism.

Feeling that I was on the outside woke me up to how so many people in Jewish communities feel. And I started to realize what a loss it is for everyone if we accept a seat on the outside. Jewish communities need all of us—not just the ones who fit nicely into a box.

Lilith has a lot to teach us. She teaches us to figure out who we are and stand up for what we believe is right. And she teaches us that if we allow others to cut us out, we can’t effect change from within.

You Shall Be Holy

Diverse groupI will be speaking as part of Diversity Shabbat on Friday, April 25. The Torah portion for this Shabbat includes the well-known and still profound statement, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This difficult demand is directed to “the whole Israelite community” (19:2). It is addressed not only to the priests, elders and respected ones, but also to all men, women and children; young and old; and leaders as well as people in the community.

Here is what I believe:

Who is the “whole Israelite community?” It is all of you here. If you were brought up with Judaism, or have found yourself in Jewish life because you fell in love with someone Jewish, if you have a parent who isn’t Jewish, if you wandered away from organized Jewish life, whether you think about Judaism throughout the week or not…you are the whole Israelite community.

If you cast your fate, so to speak, with the Jewish people…feel proud of and part of our amazing history, feel inspired by our audacious hope even in the face of despair, want your children to learn values and ancient wisdom from our texts which we still argue with and confront today, you are the whole Israelite community. If you want American, liberal Judaism to exist in the years to come because it adds creativity, nuance, ingenuity, joy, order, sacred purpose, social justice, support for education and so much more to our society, then you are the whole Israelite community.

If you have a Christmas tree in your living room, enjoy a cheeseburger, have grandparents and cousins and extended family who share Christianity with your children, yet you are here because you identify with Judaism, you are the whole Israelite community. You are in. You are good enough. We want you here. You are worthy. Your Judaism is authentic. You have layered, complex, multi-faceted family dynamics and you work to create Shalom bayit—peace in your home and your wider home—which is one of the most important mitzvot (commandments)…we understand. It’s a journey. You make decisions. You revisit decisions. Identity grows and changes. You are the whole Israelite community.

There is one God of peace and love. We are one people, trying to make our family, our circle of friendships, our workplaces, our school communities, our Temple family, our world a more just, kind and decent place.

You shall be holy. This is holy work. The word in Hebrew for honor as in the 10 Commandments, to honor our parents, is kavod. This word also comes from the word for heavy. True honor and respect is a heavy pursuit. This is not for the faint of heart. This stretches us and brings us into new territory. But, ultimately, loving our neighbor next to us in these seats is holy because you are your neighbor. We are one.

Rabbi Ari Moffic’s Sermon on Today’s Judaism

Star

The following is my sermon given on March 7, 2014 at Temple Beth El in Munster, IN.

The weekly Torah portions now move into the book of Leviticus. The Five Books of Moses are referred to by Hebrew names which are the first main word in that section of Torah. Leviticus is known as Vayikra which in Hebrew means God called out. God calls out many things to the people throughout the long narrative. Sometimes the people heed God’s call and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it is Moses or another leader who hears God’s call and then instructs the people what to do or not to do.

Do we believe God is still calling out? What is God calling? How does the call sound? When and how can we hear it? Some say God calls out through nature saying to stop destroying the environment. Some would say God calls out through people doing social justice work and bringing to our attention the suffering and plight of the vulnerable in society who need more help. Some might say God calls out through our inner voice which helps us calibrate our moral compass. Some say God calls out over and over and in new ways through this sacred text—through this scroll—through this ever-new message and that is why we read it over and over and over, and read commentaries about it over and over and over and continue to think about our own responses to these words. Do we hear God in the shofar? In the upcoming graggers and laughter of our youth?

What would God call out if God could read this latest Pew study of American Jewry? Most American Jews are not members of a synagogue. Most American Jews marry someone not Jewish. Many liberal American Jews raise their children with another religious tradition in addition to some Judaism. Millennials by and large say they are Jewish of no religion? What is happening here? Where did everything go wrong? How do we get things back on track?

OK—as an aside—why must we personify God? It seems true, as Maimonides, the great Jewish, Spanish philosopher and writer in the 1100s thought, that we can only make negative statements about God—God is not human. The only positive statement we can make is that God is and even that limits God. So, I am of course speaking in metaphor.

But, there are those who would say that there is something fundamentally broken or off about American, liberal Judaism. Synagogues are outdated and cost too much money to maintain. Our liturgy does not resonate any more. We don’t know Hebrew and so prayer in Hebrew does not “work” as it once did. Since Judaism is a religion of boundaries and distinctions—the difference between the holy and profane, between day and night, between Shabbat and the rest of the week—we cannot have a truly inclusive Jewish community.

The nature of the Jewish religion is that it is insular and exclusivist to some extent. Jews can do and say certain things and those not Jewish cannot. Those younger than 13 cannot do certain things. On Passover, we cannot eat certain things. We are a religion of rules and boundaries and these rules have kept us a distinct people for millennia. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky, the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, our rabbinical school, just said to me, “There are many in the Jewish community now who straddle the fence and straddling a fence hurts.”

So, this is all bad news and negative. Goodbye American liberal Judaism as we know it. It’s been a nice run, but it’s over?

No way.

Things are better than ever. It is our diverse community that gives us new strength—new voices, new questions and new insights are good for Judaism. We are pushed to define ourselves, to understand who is a Jew and what makes something Jewish. We are forced to confront our own lack of literacy and to take ownership of our religion and our heritage. When we have a community made up of those who grew up with Judaism and those newer to it, we uncover what it really means to welcome the stranger and to believe in One God of all who is a God of peace and love. We are given the sacred opportunity to perform the mitzvah, the commandment, to love our neighbor as our self because we are our neighbor. We see the most often repeated commandment from the Torah come alive for us: Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Does this always make it easy? Should we have no ritual barriers to full participation in Jewish life? (I kind of think so, but not everyone agrees with this). Should all rabbis officiate at any wedding where a Jew requests Jewish clergy to be with them? Can we find room in our religious schools for children being raised to also learn about and appreciate Catholicism, for instance? There are no easy answers but lots of important questions.

What is God calling to us now? I believe one message that is blatantly obvious and which can bring us closer to one another and God is that we need to open up, not create more rules and tighten our limits. We are a tiny “in” group and we are, by the way, not a homogeneous group; we are not different from those not in these seats tonight. The majority of liberal Jews are somewhere else. It is not for us to call them in. It is for our Jewish expression, our synagogue structures, and our leaders to open up. We have to act with love, respect, with joy and optimism, humility and inspiration, to individualize, accommodate and include anyone who might come to see that living with Judaism is a rich, vibrant, accessible, authentic way to structure one’s days.

Kayn Yihi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

Amen.

Who is IN and Who is OUT?

I recently attended a think tank talking about how to expand “our” reach to interfaith families, Jews of all hues and LGBTQ individuals, couples and families. This is the visual I made during the sessions.

Diagram

Who is the “our?” Who do “we” want to reach and why? Do people want to be reached in this way and come in? In to what? In to whom?

Is the premise that the “in group” that wants these unaffiliated, differently engaged people to walk through “their” doors not the same as those outside? Thus, the in group has to learn about them and understand them so that they can welcome them better?

Relationships are based on learning about the other person, so in this way, asking questions and gaining insights into what some people in these categories consider offensive or inviting is helpful. Learning about situations that have caused pain and struggle can give sensitivity and background for when they will meet and speak.

Once people are invited in, is it to share the same experience as those already on the inside, or to help mold and shape a new experience based on the new voices and backgrounds present? Is there a core that has to stay consistent and unchanged no matter who comes in?

These were some of the questions we were grappling with. What do you think?

 

Where I Stand on The PEW Study

I saw it first on Facebook, then my inbox and finally it was brought up at an “Interfaith Café” I attended last week. The Jewish community is abuzz with A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. The first article I read on this study was quite inflammatory. Some of their “highlights” included:

Thirty-two percent of Jews born after 1980—the so-called millennial generation—identify as Jews of no religion, compared to 19% of baby boomers and just 7% of Jews born before 1927. Overall, 22% of US Jews describe themselves as having no religion, meaning they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.

The analytical side of my brain wanted to know what questions were asked, how they were asked and how the Pew Research Center defined the first layer of the question, “of Jews.” Thankfully, there was a sidebar defining who is a Jew.

Diagram

This diagram is from PewForum.org

I appreciate their stance, to “cast the net widely” such that if anyone answered yes to any of three statements, then they were considered Jewish for purposes of participating in the rest of the survey:

(a) that their religion is Jewish, or

(b) that aside from religion they consider themselves to be Jewish or partially Jewish, or

(c) that they were raised Jewish or had at least one Jewish parent, even if they do not consider themselves Jewish today

With that information, I was not surprised by the results. Liberal Jewish congregational professionals have long been talking about the decline in religion and what that means for the sustainability of their congregation.

I feel it especially in California where I would say many people (Jewish and not) are “not religious.” People connect with heritage, tradition and culture. This was especially true in our last Love and Religion workshop. It became very hard for spouses/partners who were raised in a faith tradition other than Judaism to understand their partner’s Jewish identity, when that identity was void of religion.

Rather than looking at the results as Wertheimer describes, “[a] very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” I prefer to look at it as an opportunity to embrace other aspects of Judaism—beyond sitting in services and praying. I also feel this is an amazing opportunity for our interfaith families, in that there are so many ways they can connect with Judaism!

The Bay Area is rich with non-religious options for Jewish involvement and community. EcoJews of the Bay, G-dcast, PJ Library, The Contemporary Jewish Museum and Wilderness Torah are just some of the non-religious institutions that one can connect with in the Bay Area.

The future of Judaism is not doomed. This is an opportunity! Benji Lovitt’s response sheds light on another way of interpreting the data. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Opening the Gates

Leading up to and during my vacation there have been three big intermarriage stories in the media. They all revolve around whether, and how, Jewish communities are going to open their gates and draw in interfaith couples and families.

First came a JTA story by Uriel Heilman, The War Against Intermarriage Has Been Lost. Now What? The title pretty much tells the content of the article: Jewish institutions and in particular religious denominations are not “fighting against intermarriage” so much any more; the question now is how to react to the intermarriages that are going to happen; the overall strategy appears to be to engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism; the denominations differ in how far to go in that embrace, and how strongly to push for conversion. Heilman says there has been a shift in attitudes so that intermarriage is viewed as “a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.”

I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is – there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders – and I think it’s unfortunate to see gain only when there is conversion. But the real issue is, what are Jewish institutions and denominations going to do to engage with the intermarried. I would be more interested in seeing a JTA article on the efforts that are underway to do exactly that.

Second was a series of three essays on MyJewishLearning.com about patrilineal descent. A Conservative rabbi, Alana Suskin, in The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent, tells how badly she feels about not recognizing patrilineal Jews as Jewish in large part because it’s easy to convert. Then an Orthodox rabbi, Ben Greenberg, in Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach, also feels badly, and says that a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel… people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.” But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbis’ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a “balcony perspective” because of the impact the decision had on recognition of people as Jews by other denominations.

I would say, from what I would respectfully suggest is perhaps a more important “balcony perspective,” what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldn’t help but make this connection when reading the Forward’s profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader – and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahl’s essay originally in Sh’ma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to “reaffirm her Jewish legacy.”)

The Reform rabbi who wrote for MJL, Rachel Gurevitz, I think gets it right. In Patrilineal Descent: Why This Rabbi Feels No Angst she first acknowledges Rabbi Greenberg’s concern with complications for klal yisrael but says

[T]his is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.

Rabbi Gurevitz then focuses on what I would agree is most important:

[T]he individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.

The third major story was an excerpt of a “live discussion” on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilman’s perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I don’t have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that “invariably,” in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage “almost always” results in a diminishment of Judaism. That is the first reason he gives for not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. I would respectfully suggest that the chances of the children being raised as Jewish and the chances of the intermarriage not resulting in “diminishment” would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpe’s rationale.

Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesn’t officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isn’t Jewish isn’t subject to Jewish law. I can’t argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that it’s “bad faith” for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isn’t representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true “at least for me” but it comes across as a cheap shot at all of the serious committed rabbis who do officiate for interfaith couples

The common thread of all of this press is, how open are our gates going to be – in our efforts to engage interfaith couples and families, in who we recognize as Jews, and in for whom we officiate. Those are the key questions. I’m for wide open gates.

Now back to vacation.

What Does it Mean to Be Jewish?

I love questions that do not have one right answer. They allow each of us to explore the question and connect in our own way. Defining what it means to be Jewish is a perfect example. Close your eyes. What images come to mind when you think about what it means to be Jewish?

The InterfaithFamily staff from across the country (San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston) came together for two days of retreat and meetings in our national office. One of the first questions posed to us was “What does it mean to be Jewish?” In true retreat style, paper and markers were brought out and we each got to draw our own answer to this profound question.

What would you draw to show what it means to be Jewish?

Staff Day

I drew a picture of a home and, next to it, people holding hands in a circle. You may notice that my artistic ability is not amazing. My people took the form of stick figures and I showed diversity by using every color of marker that was available. As I started to think about how to explain my drawing to my colleagues, I realized you could “read” my picture from left to right like English, or from right to left like Hebrew.

In “English,” my drawing says that one needs Judaism in their home to transmit values and traditions to the next generation. Then, one needs a community to share those values and traditions. To deepen the connections and share the experiences. But my explanation didn’t stop there.

I thought about my own family’s history and that of many interfaith households. For them, Judaism often starts with the community, reading my picture in “Hebrew.” It is with this community and their support that each individual family can find Jewish traditions and values that they want to embrace. Often they don’t have the tools to do this on their own. For them the community aspect is imperative. And with a supportive community, Judaism can infuse into traditions in the home as well.

My colleagues came up with so many different interpretations. I’m curious what you imagine when you answer the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Please share your thoughts in the comments section—and remember, there is not one “right” answer.

Boxed In: The Call in Option

FormsIt’s that time of the summer when we need to register for fall activities. This blog is a request to synagogues administrators, Jewish preschool and day school directors and program providers to look at your enrollment forms, preferably with a participant who isn’t Jewish to figure out how to best ask questions to get the information that is needed and to leave the one filling it out with a sense that they are meant for this program.

When we ask people to fill out enrollment forms for religious school and synagogue membership and to sign up for Jewish programs, the forms may seem clear-cut and simple to us, yet feel frustrating to the person filling it out. We need to figure out what we want to know and then try to ask questions in a way to gather that information. We need to know what we want to do with the information we collect and let the person filling out the form know why we are asking the question so that they know what information to provide.

For instance, one question that congregations usually want answered on forms is whether the parents are Jewish and if not, what religion they grew up with or now identify as. Sometimes the choices are: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Secular, Traditional, Other. The “other” category is for someone who didn’t grow up Jewish. Maybe some wouldn’t mind checking “other” to describe themselves. I imagine some would feel other and different just from this seeming innocuous registration question.

Synagogues and program leaders may need to know whether the parents are Jewish for halachic (legal) reasons in terms of matrilineal or patrilineal descent. They may want to know this to better understand the make-up of the program or congregation. Maybe they will seek to bring together people with similar backgrounds.

As we all know, the simple question of: “State the religion of parent 1 and parent 2” can be complicated.

Here is an excerpt of an email I received which illustrates the messiness and wonderfulness of this all:

“I was raised in a culturally Jewish household and have never received any religious education. My father was raised Catholic, but since marrying my mother has become very interested in the Jewish faith. We often joke he is the most Jewish out of all of us despite not being raised so. My partner was raised with slightly more religious Jewish education and went to a reconstructionist temple and attended some Sunday School and Hebrew school. She had a bat mitzvah but does not currently attend temple. Both of her parents are Jewish and her dad still attends temple for high holidays. Cultural traditions are more important to her then religious aspects.”

We love simple labels and easy check-offs. This helps us with tracking and data entry. However, maybe instead of boxes to check and short lines to write answers to profound questions, we need to leave room on forms for people to call in their answers. The call-in option would connect the person registering to the teacher or leader so that they could engage in a conversation of meaning.

If you are a program administrator and help create forms, visit our Resource Center for Program Providers to find best practices in terms of enrollment forms and website language.

Genetic Screening: Why you should consider it

Couple with a counselorWhen you fall in love and decide that your partner is going to be the person you want to share your life with, life can seem blissful. If you start thinking about children, the future seems rosy and exciting. Some of you might be aware that the Jewish population may be at risk for certain genetic diseases. When a couple is from two different religious backgrounds, a they may think they are in the clear. A mix of genes from a variety of cultures should lead to a more robust gene pool, they think. Remember we learned in high school that both parents have to carry the gene for the child to be at risk. So an interfaith couple should be unlikely to produce a child with genetic issues, right? Maybe not.

I recently saw a news story that members from the Irish community were having children with Tay Sachs (a genetic disease that can occur with people from eastern European descent). This got me thinking. Do all of us truly know who our great, great, great grandparents were? Is there a chance that our ancestors left Spain in 1492? Is there a chance that one of our ancestors was born to Jewish parents but decided to become another religion to avoid religious persecution? I realized, this entire country was founded upon the basis of freedom of religion! Obviously, throughout the world, the freedom to practice one’s religion has been (and in many places continues to be) at risk. So chances are high that one of our ancestors could have been from a different religion or culture. With such a possibility, it makes sense that we might not truly know our genetic makeup. When I think about it further, anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years. So the chances that an ancestor was Jewish and then converted to another religion to avoid persecution is possibly quite high.

At the Victor center, statistics say that one in four Jews is a carrier for at least one of 19 preventable Jewish genetic diseases. The mission of the Victor Center for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases is to ensure ongoing access to comprehensive genetic education, counseling services and screenings. This is accomplished through Jewish community education programs and screening programs for healthy individuals at risk for being carriers of a gene mutation for any one of these diseases. The Victor Center recommends that the Jewish partner be tested first. If the Jewish partner has no issues, then there is no need for additional genetic testing.

It is obviously a scary proposition to think about “what if” and what decisions that might need to be made if there is a problem. That is the point of testing. Then you know and can move forward. More important, once you know that you are in the clear, you can stop worrying about genetic diseases. Genetic counselors can explain all the issues, risks and options. Genetic testing is a simple blood test but it can provide peace of mind. With peace of mind, you can start focusing on the other exciting aspects of upcoming parenthood.

If both are carriers, what are the reproductive options?

There are many reproductive options available to carrier couples, including prenatal diagnosis (chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis), pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, gamete donation and adoption. Genetic counseling is recommended to learn more about all of the reproductive options. To speak with the genetic counselor at The Victor Center, please call (215) 456-8722. Additionally, your rabbi or other clergy may be able to provide insight and help in making these decisions.Everyone is different and every couple is different. The point is this: You and your partner should just think about being tested. It is a good discussion to have and there are genetic counselors ready to help no matter what you decide.

Read one couple’s story about coping with genetic disease