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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.”
As we prepare to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, I find myself thinking about the land of milk and honey. I’m not dreaming of pita and falafel, or gaga or any of the other activities at my community’s Israel Independence Day celebration. I’m thinking about why travel to Israel is important.
I’ve got this on my mind for two reasons: my family is considering going on my synagogue’s Summer 2015 congregational Israel trip, and Taglit-Birthright, the nonprofit sponsor of free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults has announced that it is expanding its outreach to children with one Jewish parent who have little or no formal connection to Jewish life. But why go to Israel?
Many believe that a visit to Israel is a building block of Jewish identity that can strengthen bonds with the land and its people, spark interest in Jewish history and practices, and create solidarity with Jewish communities worldwide. The belief is that going to Israel will make Jewishness more important to a Jew, even one with a marginal connection to Jewish life.
I think this is true and it is one of the reasons why interfaith families and children of intermarriage should be encouraged to go to Israel, especially as the Jewish community seeks to get more intermarrieds to engage in Jewish life. But I also think going to Israel is like studying the humanities, it is an important part of our intellectual repertory regardless of the faith we identify with or how we do or do not practice a particular religion.
Israel’s position at the place where three continents and two seas meet made it a crossroads of ancient trade routes where various cultures, customs, and traditions mixed. Over the centuries, it has been home to many peoples and multiple religions. Touching history in Israel–ancient and modern–helps us better understand and think more deeply about the world around us. Visiting Israel provides context.
Learning about Christianity in the birthplace of Jesus, Islam in the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven, and Judaism in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah provides insight into three major faiths and background for the current state of each. Traveling to Israel, like literature, art, and philosophy challenges us to think differently–to step outside our comfort zone, to consider other perspectives, to confront our fears and prejudices, and see life’s complexities.
I think about my experience traveling to Israel as a 16-year-old on a teen tour organized by NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth arm, and how it opened my heart and mind. I recall having emotional experiences that brought me to tears: Touching the Western Wall, standing atop Masada watching the sunrise, and the dark and somber Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem. Never before had anything Jewish moved me in this way.
I remember touring the Dome of the Rock, the magnificent Muslim holy site that is believed to enshrine the sacred rock from which Muhammad ascended to heaven and asking myself if I could admire the shrine’s architectural beauty even though there was a tumultuous history of conflict between Muslim and Jews. I discovered that I was capable of separating one thing from the other.
A visit with an ultra-Orthodox woman in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim and encounters with non-practicing Israelis highlighted the growing tensions between the secular, and religious–an issue that has only intensified in recent years. I remember sitting with the other girls on my trip in the woman’s apartment as she discussed her daily religious rituals and shaving her head. She told us that we were “bad” Jews because we did not live as she did. I thought who is she to judge my Jewishness.
Contrast that with our more regular encounters with secular Israelis who felt little obligation to observe Jewish rituals and practices because they lived in Israel. Living in the Jewish state was enough. They shared their dislike of the control the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate had over personal affairs such marriage, divorce, and the status of who was a Jew. The interactions with people who held two contrasting perspectives helped me understand just how important I felt the separation of church and state was and made me realize that I could love Israel but disagree with its policies.
Like many areas of the world, Israel is complicated. The Israeli-Palestinian issue and the role of religion in a democratic society challenge our liberal American Jewish values. But Israel’s complexities are precisely why I think interfaith families and their children should go to Israel. Experiencing the contradictions is part of the journey.
When we go to Israel, we discover our roots and understand our personal connection to Judaism’s past, and the Jewish people. We explore the links between the three faiths that consider the land sacred. We learn about the importance of this area in history–religious and otherwise. We gain perspective on current events–my visit took place shortly before the First Intifada and as internal politics was heating up-and our experience with art and literature is enriched–reading Alice Hoffman’s novel The Dovekeepers is different after you’ve been to Masada and walked the ancient fortress where much of the story takes place.
I hope more children of intermarriage take advantage of the opportunity presented by a Birthright trip because visiting Israel can be transformative. It can help you better understand what you believe in, and galvanize you to advocate for the change you want to see in Israel and elsewhere in the world. It can educate you about the Jewish community. What you learn on a trip can enable you to make informed choices about Israel, Judaism, faith, politics, and culture.
Why should you go to Israel? You should go because it connects you to the past and adds meaning to the present. I know, because 27 years ago it did these things for me.