When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
It behooves everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox included, to regard Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew for all purposes except where halachic status matters. Many would say that the entire community benefits from having a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, for example. When halachic status is important, it can be dealt with. A Jew to whom halachic status is important in a marriage partner, for example, can choose not to marry someone who does not measure up to his or her halachic standards, or the non-halachic Jew can convert according to those same standards. It would be a major advance if the idea took hold that the Jewish community consists of Jews who are halachic and who are not halachic and that issues of halachic status could be dealt with when they arise.
The Forward issue dated today has two related articles of interest. My former colleague Rabbi Sue Fendrick, in Beyond ‘Yes or No’ Jewishness,
seems to agree with me. She makes the interesting point that the State of Israel recognizes the advantages of distinguishing “Jewish for what purpose?” – the state’s eligibility rules for immigration and for ritual status are different. I loved her statement,
… we gain nothing by ignoring or failing to name the ways that an individual’s Jewishness “counts” – whether they live a Jewish life and identify as a Jew, come from a Jewish family or are “half-Jewish,” or are simply identified by other Jews as being “one of us.” … Simple yes/no definitions of Jewishness are inadequate to the task of naming reality. We need to make room for descriptions that tell us about Jewishness as it is, not obscure its realities and complexities.
Rabbi Andy Bachman, in Patrilineal Promise and Pitfalls, suggests that children raised as Jews who are not considered Jews outside of the Reform movement because their mothers are not Jewish should be taken to the mikveh for conversion by Reform rabbis by the age of Bar of Bat Mitzvah. The problem with that approach is that the Jews who don’t consider those children Jewish, wouldn’t recognize such a conversion if it were under Reform auspices. If Reform conversions were so recognized, I would be in favor of this kind of process, or even of incorporating conversion into a bris or baby naming ceremony. Sadly this is not in the cards.
Have you seen this new anthology, What We Brought Back? Edited by Wayne Hoffman, it’s a collection of essays by folks who have gone on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. And it’s not just a look at what happened during their 10-day trip. Rather, it looks at what was happening in their lives that made them think that a 10-day trip would be a good idea and what’s been happening since they returned.
In other words, we’re looking at the impact:
Where the trip came in their Jewish journeys. Was it a turning point, was it a confirmation, was it a change, was it an about face on their Jewish journeys as young people?
Unsurprisingly, as Birthright accepts all young Jews with at least one Jewish parent, some of the contributors to the book are from interfaith families. They, along with all of the contributors, wrote personal essay and poems and shared photographs.
One story is of love, conversion and wondering how a Jew by choice feels about claiming a “birthright.” Another reflects on how laughter is a common thread between the Jewish and Catholic sides of a family. A third sets the tone by sharing, with amusement, the difficulty Midwesterners have when they see the author’s name in writing.
An author (performer) familiar to us at InterfaithFamily.com is also included, Ruby Marez. She reflects on her interfaith and interracial background, and what it means in terms of Jewish identity.
Anyway, it’s worth a read. Pick it up.
And if I haven’t convinced you, check out the book reading at Strand Bookstore on Youtube:
Our friend, and terrific journalist, Sue Fishkoff had a JTA story about the annual convention of the World Union of Progressive Judaism that missed what I think was a more important part of the convention.
The World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) is the association of Reform movements from all over the world. (Outside of the US, Reform Judaism is often called Progressive Judaism, hence the name of the association.) The WUPJ rarely holds its annual meeting in the US, but it did last week in San Francisco.
Sue’s story focuses on how Progressive Jews outside of the US have not adopted the American Reform Jewish movement’s doctrine of patrilineal descent which considers as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother who is raised as a Jew. Sue attended a panel discussion on that subject, and reports that other than in the Liberal movement in England and in the former Soviet Union (and one congregation each in Ireland and Holland), no other Diaspora community recognizes patrilineal descent.
I wish Sue had been able to cover the panel discussion at which IFF’s Chief Education Officer, Karen Kushner, and our Advisory Board member, Rosanne Levitt, spoke about the importance of programming to welcome interfaith couples and families. And I wish she had been able to cover the evening session at which Rabbi Lawrence Kushner spoke, because what he had to say presents a compelling case in favor of patrilineal descent and other measures to welcome and include interfaith couples and families in Jewish communities – and not just in the US.
Yes, full disclosure, Rabbi Kushner is Karen Kushner’s husband – but according to the website of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, he is considered “one of the top leaders of American Reform Jewry” along with Rabbis Eric Yoffie (head of the US Reform movement), David Ellenson (head of Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary), and David Saperstein (head of the URJ’s Religious Action Center).
It turns out that “assimilate” has two definitions. The more common, of course, means to dissolve into the local culture. It’s in that sense that our enemies accuse us of being assimilationist. But the reason we’re still here is because the word can also mean, not to disappear, but to deliberately take in something from the outside and make it one’s own. For example: The music business has assimilated hip-hop. And we Reform Jews have assimilated some very beautiful but non-Jewish liberal Western ideas: The equality of women; the normalization of gay people; social justice for everyone, not only Jews. But we didn’t swallow these ideas whole. We received them, we shaped them, we grounded them, we assimilated them. We made them Jewish, we made them mitzvot. That’s what we Reform Jews do; it’s who we are; it may even be why God wants us around.
We have been so terrified a Jew might fall in love with a non-Jew, we forgot that, every year, tens, hundreds of thousands of non-Jews also fall in love with, marry, and have children with Jews. They may not yet be willing or able to become Jews, but they have, with their very lives, thrown in their lot with us. Like it or not, they are members of our extended family. And they deserve an honored place at the table—and maybe even to be counted in the minyans Reform Jews claim they don’t count.
The presence at the table of these potentially new members of our family reminds us that we have something precious. They help us reexamine, deepen, and cherish our own piety. Jews who have chosen Judaism through conversion or, yes, through marrying a Jew and trying to make a Jewish home, free us from ethnocentrism and smugness. These people are not the enemy; they’re a gift.
[It is] the 21st Century and intermarriage is here to stay. The only question before us now is whether or not we will acknowledge social and religious reality and see what, yes, Heaven, wants of us now.
We at IFF are glad that the Kushners and Rosanne Levitt put a positive response to intermarriage on the WUPJ agenda, and we hope the delegates from around the world took in their message and will bring it back to their communities.
In the aftermath of the terrible attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, there has been a lot of discussion in the Jewish press about the “who is a Jew” issue. Two and a half weeks ago I blogged that it was a shame that it took a tragedy to get leading Jewish commentators like the editors of the Jerusalem Post to write that a non-halachic but self-identifying Jew like Giffords should not be excluded and that “many ‘non-Jews’ are much more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows.”
Now the editors of the Forward have offered Who Isn’t a Jew? but they don’t give a satisfactory answer. They write that there is a disconnect between religious standards and the people’s behavior: Giffords, who has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, is no more Jewish according to traditional Jewish law than Chelsea Clinton, but is being widely treated as a Jew across the country. The editors say this is cause for cheer, because tolerance and inclusion are good, but also cause for dismay — and that’s where they go wrong. They lament that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families, when the Boston 2005 demographic study concluded that at least in that community, intermarriage was leading to more Jewish families, not less. And they lament the divide on this issue between the Orthodox and everyone else.
There is a solution to the halachic divide. It behooves everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox included, to regard Gabrielle Giffords as a Jew for all purposes except where halachic status matters. Many would say that the entire community benefits from having a staunch supporter of Israel in the US Congress, for example. When halachic status is important, it can be dealt with. A Jew to whom halachic status is important in a marriage partner, for example, can choose not to marry someone who does not measure up to his or her halachic standards, or the non-halachic Jew can convert according to those same standards. It would be a major advance if the idea took hold that the Jewish community consists of Jews who are halachic and who are not halachic and that issues of halachic status could be dealt with when they arise.
Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic. I thought, after last year’s GA, that attitudes were perhaps turning more positive towards intermarriage, but the Forward editorial is a setback. Lamenting that intermarriage leads to fewer Jewish families and that inclusion may cause the communal tent to collapse is self-fulfilling: young interfaith couples are not going to want to associate with a community that regards them as undermining and destructive. And it certainly won’t encourage those on the traditional end of the spectrum to be more tolerant and inclusive of non-halachic Jews.
There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about intermarriage, interfaith Jews and the eternal “who is a Jew” debate. Some of it was spurred by the attack on Rep. Giffords, and the Jewish community’s near unanimous response that, yes, she is Jewish. (See, for example, Julie Wiener’s recent column in The Jewish Week, Is Anyone Jewish Enough?)
But that wasn’t the only source of news this week. So cuddle up with a mug of hot cocoa, stay warm and watch the snowstorms move in while you read another hodge podge:
An article in the Jewish Exponent looked at bullying in the Jewish community, specifically in Jewish schools.
Even if violence is minimal, day school students said that doesn’t make the emotional or mental abuse any easier to bear.
“It’s worse for us because our cliques can’t be based on color or race, so instead, it goes a little bit deeper,” Becca Richman, 16, a junior at Barrack Hebrew Academy, said during a discussion on bullying at an Anti-Defamation League youth leadership conference in late November.
Since everyone shares the same ethnicity, students might discriminate over whether someone is overly observant, not observant enough, from an intermarried family, homosexual, wealthy and so forth, her classmates added.
Meanwhile, the religion blog in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper, linked to a story on Intermarriage, the law of return and the modern Israeli state. It might be interesting to you to read some of the proposals Israel has for dealing with intermarriage, people who are “Jewish enough” to move to Israel but not “Jewish enough” to be considered Jewish for marriage. (I will add the disclaimer that when I read the line, “One brave exception is Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a member of the Knesset from the Shas political party.” I had to fight the urge to stop reading…)
Now, I wouldn’t normally share an article (Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match) that boasts an OU (Orthodox Union) approved dating site, but I how else would I have learned about intermarriage statistics for the Jewish Deaf community?
In the past, the rate of intermarriage among the deaf was close to 60%.
Another article looking at the “who’s a Jew” question in Israel focuses instead on Y.B., a 23-year-old would-be convert to Judaism (he was raised Jewish, has a non-Jewish mother) who is gay.
The soldier’s experience highlights the plight that gay would-be converts to Judaism face in Israel: Because there is no separation of state and religion, and the state religion is regulated by the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, it is practically impossible for an openly gay person to convert to Judaism. Under Orthodox Jewish law, a would-be convert who rejects a tenet of the Torah — in this case, the prohibition against homosexual intercourse — cannot join the faith.
An IDF spokesman denied that Y.B. was expelled from the course because he is gay.
“The IDF believes that a person’s origin, gender and sexual orientation cannot have an impact on his or her ability to appropriately complete the conversion process,” the spokesman said in response to a JTA query. “The soldier in question chose to leave the course of his own accord because, as he noted, ‘He did not feel ready to complete the conversion process.’ The soldier was clearly informed he could return to the course when he felt ready to do so.”
Y.B. says that during his meeting with conversion course officials, he signed a form saying he was not ready to complete the process only because he was told he could not continue to study if he indeed was gay. The stipulation given for his return would be based on his agreeing to pursue relationships with women, Y.B. says he was told.
Yesterday Benjamin Maron put up a blog post about the awful attack on US Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Everyone at InterfaithFamily.com, like most people, feels terribly about what happened in Tucson.
The violent incident in itself is not something that we would ordinarily comment about. (My personal view that there should be a huge outcry about gun control isn’t something that is an issue for InterfaithFamily.com either.) If Congresswoman Giffords didn’t have an interfaith family background, we wouldn’t have commented. But she does, and we thought it would be interest to our readers, and in part it was our way of expressing our distress.
The mission of InterfaithFamily.com is to empower people in interfaith relationships to engage in Jewish life and make Jewish choices. There are so many interfaith couples that are potentially interested in Jewish life, we want to present information that will attract them to give it a try. When a person of celebrity comes from or is in an interfaith relationship and is engaged Jewishly, we want to let our site visitors know, because it may trigger interest or steps in that direction. From all accounts, Gabrielle Giffords is a very wonderful person in the public eye, who came from an interfaith family — her father is Jewish, her mother is not — and was not raised very Jewishly and yet chose to identify Jewishly as an adult. We think it’s important for our readers to know that.
There is another significance to the Giffords story that is very relevant to IFF’s advocacy work for more welcoming of interfaith families by Jewish communities. Thankfully Gabrielle Giffords apparently was not greeted, when she decided to get more Jewishly involved, with an attitude that she was not welcome, she was not “really” Jewish, etc. In that regard, the Jerusalem Post ran a very important editorial yesterday. The Post, not exactly known to be liberal on intermarriage issues, basically says that Giffords should be considered to be a Jew – even though she is not halachically Jewish.
Some of the Post’s language is striking. They say for example that Giffords “actively embraced Judaism” after a 2001 trip to Israel – this about a person who has not converted. They also say that the “broadening definition of Jewishness is not restricted to the Reform movement,“ citing a paper about halachically non-Jewish offspring of intermarried parents not being excluded from Conservative congregations. The editorial concludes:
Is it conceivable to exclude Giffords, another “non-Jew,” who is so unequivocally Jewish? With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of “Who is a Jew?” that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many “non-Jews” are much more Jewish than their “Jewish” fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.
The flip side of IFF’s work trying to attract people in interfaith relationships to Jewish life is that Jewish communities need to welcome them. It’s a shame that it takes a tragedy like this one for leading Jewish commentators to come to that conclusion.
So if you’re curious to hear what was said about interfaith families, interfaith inclusion, at the largest gathering of the North American Jewish community, look no further. We have a copy of Ed’s remarks here, just for you.
Working for an organization that largely serves Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews (though we certainly are a resource to some Orthodox too), she wondered what happens when the types of Jews we serve, and non-Jews too, come across discussions like these. Is there a way to let our demographics know that not all Jews are so hateful or judgmental? Is there a way to let those who are new to, or outside, the Jewish community understand that the extreme perspective demonstrated on discussion boards like YWN‘s are not how all Jews feel? (Not to mention that the majority of Jews are Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated, not Orthodox. The Orthodox folks in this conversation need to recognize that the people they are discussing are Jewish and follow a Judaism they hold as real and legitimate, even if some of the Orthodox do not.)
It reminded me of the struggle that the Muslim community has, whether or not they need to constantly distance themselves from Muslim extremists and remind the world that not all Muslims think/feel that way. While those extremists are violent, ours are just exclusionary, which is harder, in some ways, to combat. Do we as progressive Jews need to take up a similar PR campaign? Hang a banner, so to speak, somewhere to remind folks that we’re not all closed-minded and hateful?
So let’s just put it here: We are a welcoming, open, community for all types of Jews!
The Boston Jewish Film Festival is right around the corner – November 3-14. There are a couple screenings of particular interest to interfaith families, or those interested in interfaith and/or intercultural issues.
The first is the film Me and the Jewish Thing, a documentary about, and by, Ulrik Gutkin. Through conversations with his wife, Signe, we learn that Ulrik, who is Jewish, and Signe, who is Christian, do not share the same opinion about the need for circumcision. Ulrik, a 4th generation Danish Jew, feels strongly that their son should be circumcised. Signe, however, sees circumcision as a “medieval” act of mutilation and cruelty.
The film covers four years of the couple’s life, spanning from the last weeks of Signe’s pregnancy, through the first few years of their son Felix’s life. Interwoven with Ulrik and Signe’s ongoing debate, we learn about Ulrik’s Jewish history, his attachment to his religion and culture. In addition to questioning the physical purpose of circumcision, Signe wonders why it’s important to Ulrik to become more Jewish, make a film about this Jewish topic, when Judaism wasn’t a big part of Ulrik’s life prior to having kids.
Ulrik struggles to articulate why he feels strongly in favor of circumcising their son. As it becomes clear to him that their son won’t be circumcised, he looks for other ways to impart Judaism on Felix, though he and Signe again feel differently about those efforts.
While this documentary demonstrates a difficult issue that many interfaith couples are faced with, we at InterfaithFamily.com encourage couples to discuss potential conflicts in advance. We have plenty of resources about circumcision, if that’s the specific topic in question; we’re also offering an online group for interfaith couples to learn how to make decisions while still respecting both partner’s religion.
Screening with Me and the Jewish Thing is a short documentary called Michal, Matthias and the Unborn Child. Unlike Ulrik and Signe, Michal, an Israeli Jew, and Matthias, a Christian German, start discussing what their religious life would look like were they to have children together in the future.
They visit a Jewish day school in Berlin, where they live, and meet with another local Jewish Israeli and German couple who are raising their children as Jews. Michal and Matthias are able to see these children, and their father, who is not Jewish, participate fully in lighting the candles, making blessings over the wine, and sharing a Shabbat dinner together.
This process is open, respectful, and proactive. We definitely approve of their early dialogue!
See Ulrik and Signe, Michal and Matthias (along with a third short film, Hasan Everywhere) on Thursday, November 11 at 4:15pm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
An interesting article appeared in the most recent edition of our local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Advocate, outlining the interfaith, interreligious, intercultural practices of one of our community members.
Friday afternoon he goes to the Mosque for the Praising of Allah on Shawmut Avenue in Roxbury for the Jumu’ah prayer. By 6 p.m., he is at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, throwing on a tallis to drum for the Shabbat services. He returns to TBZ on Saturday morning for Torah study and services. Sunday he begins the day at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Roslindale and then heads to his own church, the Unitarian Universalist First Church of Roxbury.
[Reverend Ronald] White, 66, said he has been doing the same routine for the past three years, and over time he has become more than a visitor at each place of worship. On Friday night during Sukkot, TBZ congregants clapped their hands to the beat as White pounded the drum and shook his tambourine from his seat in the front row of the sanctuary. After services, he schmoozed with congregants in the sukkah before getting on his bike to ride home to Jamaica Plain.
Wow. That’s quite a commitment!
He and his interfaith family are members at Temple Israel in Boston, where his three daughters, who were raised Jewish, all had bat mitzvahs.
Possibly of interest to our readers in the Boston area,