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Earlier this month my family hosted some of the Israeli staff from my son’s summer camp before they went to the camp for training. We have done this for the past three summers, and it has been a wonderful experience.
This year, the staff that we hosted had spent time with Birthright tours in Israel, and one had an American girlfriend who he met while serving as an IDF liaison to a trip. As he told us about her, he mentioned that she was Jewish. Really Jewish. Since 30 percent of Birthright participants have only one Jewish parent, I assumed that he meant that this young woman came from an inmarried family or was of matrilineal descent. A moment later, my young Israeli friend elaborated on the comment, “Her mother and father are both Jewish.”
The language used was an immediate red flag because my son’s camp was affiliated with the Reform movement and accepted as Jewish any child with one Jewish parent regardless of whether that parent was the mother or father. There would be many not-really-Jewish kids at camp. I wanted the counselor to understand that his language was not acceptable and could be hurtful to the very children whose Jewish identities camp was supposed to nurture. I need to say something.
I explained that since the camp was Reform, there would be many children from interfaith homes being raised within Judaism and that all were accepted and welcomed as Jews. I shared that there were no really-Jewish and not-really-Jewish campers. They were all Jewish. Drawing any distinction between kids from inmarried and intermarried homes was not in the spirit of camp, especially one that greets everyone with the phrase, “Welcome to Camp!” My guest said he understood.
The conversation made me think about the larger discussion about intermarriage not just in the US, but also in Israel. With the intermarriage rate in the US at 70% for non-Orthodox Jews, the success of American efforts to connect interfaith families to Judaism is hugely important to Jewish continuity and the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Many researchers and Jewish communal professionals in America see programs such as Birthright as significant opportunities to build the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of children of intermarriage. Program data proves that the trips are doing just that which is great news.
But working to create Jewish communities that are welcoming and inclusive of interfaith families needs also to happen in Israel. The old rhetoric about intermarriage that is still common among Israelis has to change if children of intermarriage are to develop a strong connection to the Promised Land. Let’s face it; future generations of American Jews will mostly come from interfaith homes. If they feel disconnected and alienated from Israel, the historic ties between the American Jewish community and Israel will diminish.
But even with the trends we see in Judaism, change will be difficult because Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls religious law and services. Hopefully, over time and with political and religious reform, money, and more Israeli exposure to the diversity of Jews in America, we can at least get everyone to refer to children like my son as simply “Jewish.”
The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education (CJPE) is a resource and catalyst for developing education about collective Jewish belonging, often focused on the areas of Jewish peoplehood and Israel. Through its blog and Peoplehood Papers series, the organization creates dialog about the meaning and importance of Jewish peoplehood and how to nurture it.
At the end of October, I posted an essay on the CJPE blog about the role peoplehood played in my interfaith family’s decision to create a singularly Jewish home. I did this after reading many pieces written by a diverse group of Jewish individuals and professionals. I noticed that not a single article addressed intermarriage or the place interfaith families occupy among the Jewish people. With the majority of Jews marrying someone of a different faith from 2000 to 2013, I felt it was important that our voices were heard.
The winter holidays can heighten our feelings of connection to our faith and cultural identities. For Jews, the story of the Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom reminds us of our shared history and connection to the Jewish people. Retelling it brings out our Jewish pride. It is with this in mind that I share my CJPE essay below.
I’d love to hear what Jewish peoplehood means to you and your interfaith family. Is it important; if so, why; how do you instill it in your children; is Israel part of how you define it; how has intermarriage changed or influenced your relationship to it. I look forward to reading your comments.
This essay is reprinted with permission.
I always assumed I would marry a Jew and have a Jewish home. Then I started dating a non-Jewish man.
Early in the relationship, I gave little thought to our different religions. But as we became more serious and started to discuss marriage, I was confronted with the possibility that my future children might not have a connection to the Jewish people. I realized Judaism was too important to me to let that happen.
As we discussed how we would approach the issue of faith in a future home, my boyfriend asked me why I felt strongly about raising my children as Jews. I didn’t have a good answer. “Because,” was the best I could come up with.
I needed a better reason than that, so I thought more about what being Jewish meant to me. I realized that for me, being a Jew was as much about peoplehood as it was about God. In fact, what connected me to Judaism was not faith, but rather culture, values, shared history and community.
It’s not that I didn’t believe in God, it’s just that I believed in the Jewish people more: our common destiny, our mission to make the world a better place, our shared kinship and mutual responsibility, our obligation to each other. I explained to my boyfriend that a bond unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh — All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.
It took my boyfriend some time to understand my emotional and cultural connection to Judaism. The idea that a religion could be about more than faith was new to him; there is not a similar concept in Christianity. But after several months of considering the idea of peoplehood and taking a class on interfaith relationships with a priest and rabbi, my boyfriend said, “I’m on board with raising our children as Jews. In our society, you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. There is more to being Jewish than religion. For our children to be Jewish, they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”
My heart exploded with happiness and gratitude. The following month, my boyfriend proposed and a year later we were married.
My husband and I have now been building a Jewish home together for 12 years. We have a 10-year-old son who engages in Jewish education, attends Jewish overnight camp and participates in Jewish youth activities. We are active in our synagogue community and have a regular family Shabbat practice. We take in Jewish culture and host in our home Israeli young adults en route to summer jobs at US camps. Because of the various ways we engage with Judaism, my son thinks being part of the Jewish people is “special.” My non-religious, God-questioning husband does too.
Peoplehood is why my family is Jewish and it can be a powerful reason for other interfaith couples to choose Judaism as well. It doesn’t require acceptance of a certain idea about God and it doesn’t pressure non-Jewish partners to conform to a specific religious belief. What peoplehood does is open the door to the multi-dimensional nature of Judaism, allowing intermarrieds the freedom to explore the faith in their own way and at their own pace.
The following is a guest post by Marsha S.
*Names have been changed
My husband Charlie is a non-practicing Catholic and I am Jewish. From the get-go, we agreed to raise our children Jewish, which left the onus on me to further their religious identity and education. At my urging, Charlie agreed to travel to Israel this summer for our eldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. While Charlie was in full support of the education, ceremony and trip, he was essentially “going along for the ride.” Prior to leaving, I was concerned that our impending travels might be boring or “too Jewish” for him.
Boring turned out not to be an issue. Shortly before our departure, tensions were rising between Israel and Hamas. There were localized riots and violence, but at the time, we had no idea how quickly it would all escalate to a full-scale war.
After much planning, we arrived in Israel, and spent the first couple of days unwinding in Tel Aviv. We then spent another day or two getting to see more of the country, while gaining a better understanding of the mindset of the Israeli people. Up until this point, the increasing violence hadn’t touched us directly.
Then we arrived in Jerusalem. That evening, while leisurely strolling through Mamilla Mall, an air raid siren went off. We had no idea what that meant, or what to do. We saw civilians and soldiers all running in one direction. We were herded into a bomb shelter, still having no idea what was going on. It was terrifying, to say the least. Eventually, the “all clear” was given, and life resumed. It wasn’t until afterward, when we were able to connect with friends and get online that we learned Hamas’ rockets had reached Jerusalem, but were intercepted by Israel’s blessed Iron Dome.
Two days later, we were at the Western Wall when another air raid siren went off. Once the alert is sounded, you have between 15 and 90 seconds to seek shelter. More people running; this time in all different directions. A large group of soldiers appeared out of nowhere, and were running as well. This time, we huddled under a doorway as we heard explosions all around us. As it turned out, some of the explosions we heard were rockets being intercepted above us, but some were firecrackers being shot up simultaneously. My guess is that someone was just trying to scare everyone even more.
Two days later, rockets were again fired in our direction, and everyone gathered in the stairwell of our hotel until the all-clear was given. At that point, I was very concerned about our safety, and mentioned to my husband that I thought we should discuss the possibility of heading back to the States early.
I was surprised and moved by his response. He said, “We CAN’T leave now. We need to see this through. If Jews ran away every time someone tried to hurt them or persecute them, there wouldn’t be any of you left. I wouldn’t have a family! It’s important that we stand in solidarity with the Israelis right now.” I was inspired. We had only experienced a few days of this kind of fear, but there are too many Israelis who live this nightmare continuously.
During the following week in Jerusalem, we met several locals who expressed their gratitude for our presence as tourists during this tumultuous time, and collected a few friends along the way. A highlight was spontaneously singing and dancing with soldiers at The Wall on Shabbat. That spoke volumes to me about the people of Israel’s passion and determination to keep “living” despite their pain.
The final day of our trip arrived: the day of our son’s Bar Mitzvah. It was a beautiful and intimate ceremony atop Masada; just magical. For the grand finale, Charlie gathered our small group together with our arms around each other, and told us all how moved he was by our adventures during the past two weeks. He said that he never understood how special Israel was until he came to know the country and her people firsthand. He said how proud he was, not only of our son the Bar Mitzvah, for all of his hard work and preparation, but of all of us for seeing the journey through, and celebrating life despite so much ugliness around us.
I am ever grateful to Charlie for recognizing how powerful a trip like ours would be to his Jewish wife and children, and as an added bonus, he ended up being just as moved as we were by the whole experience! On the flip side, I found that traveling with my Catholic husband made me appreciate the Christian holy sites in a whole new way.
I highly recommend an interfaith all-family trip to Israel. Regardless of one’s religion, any traveler can sense how sacred the space truly is. I feel even closer to Charlie after experiencing such high highs and scary lows together in our mutual Holy Land. Oh, and if you go, don’t miss out on hummus and shwarma from a street vendor. THAT experience is close to holy in its own right!
As I left the gym early this morning, I walked past a TV showing an MSNBC interview with the Israeli Counsel General in New York. I paused to read the closed captions at the bottom of the screen and then made my way to my car.
While Israel has been on my mind for weeks, I have kept my thoughts about what is going on at a distance, and focused more on the pictures of my son enjoying his last weeks of overnight camp. But by late afternoon yesterday, I could no longer push away Israel. Two things drew me in:
A friend, in Israel for her son’s bar mitzvah, posted about her experience in the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem on Facebook. She wrote, “A peaceful stroll…turned scary as sirens blared and people started running towards the basement for safety.” She said a salesperson calmly told her group that they must go to the basement immediately. She commented that after no more than 10 minutes in the shelter, the mall returned to normal: “people eating, shopping, smiling, playing music…it was surreal.” She said she felt strangely unafraid, and that the experience gave her and her family a genuine appreciation for this sadly regular part of Israeli life.
Reading this post made me think about one of our 16-year-old babysitters who is in Israel on an NFTY trip. I immediately sent a text to his mom, who happens also to be a friend. I needed to know, what she had heard. She said the kids were safe and enjoying the trip. Today’s plan was for a hike up Masada and a float in the Dead Sea. She said she was staying abreast of the situation, but she was calm, hoping her son would be able to complete his journey in peace and safety. She said that other parents were concerned and wanted to bring their children home before the trip’s scheduled end.
These two situations got me more engaged because they touched people I know. But they also moved me to verbalize my support. I stand with Israel.
I stand with Israel, not out of blind obedience to my people, or because I believe all Israel’s actions to be just. I stand with Israel, as I stand with the United States–sometimes with a critical eye, always with a loving heart.
How I feel about Israel mirrors how I feel about this country. I am proud of her accomplishments yet disappointed by some of her policies; frustrated by her politics but unwilling to disengage from the discussion of the issues; angry at the rhetoric of some government officials or the behavior of some of her citizens, but reluctant to give up my allegiance.
Israel is not perfect, nor is any country. Like all human societies, she fights to balance moral excellence and self-defense. As Paul Johnson writes in the epilogue to his 1987 bestselling book A History of the Jews (read it, if you haven’t already), Israel was “founded to realize a humanitarian ideal,” and discovered “in practice that it must be ruthless simply to survive in a hostile world.”
Combining moral authority with, as Johnson says, “the practical demands of a state capable of defending itself,” is not an easy task, especially when the eyes of the world are watching–closely, very closely. Israel is threatened by rockets, and as Ed Case, states on the IFF Network blog, “by negative opinion and vilification around the world.” It is important to support her and efforts to resolve this crisis peacefully.
So here is why I stand with Israel:
I stand with Israel because of the good she does and the hope she embodies. I stand with Israel because of the ideals she represents and the safe haven she provides. I stand with Israel because I dare to hope for a better, more peaceful tomorrow.