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By Rabbi Keith Stern
My friend Marcus and I were in rabbinic school together. He was a rebel, a guy who reflexively said no when anyone said yes. No one could tell him what to do. He was raised in a predominantly Jewish community in New Jersey that unceremoniously fled en masse for the suburbs when the first black family moved into town. (We donâ€™t like discussing this, but Jewish families were certainly in the first waves of white flight). He says that he was the only white kid whose family stuck around. Within four years he was the only white kid on the block. This, Marcus says, is the crucible in which he learned to be his own man.
Marcus exercised his rebellious philosophy at various times in rabbinic school. His biggest â€śno one can tell me what to doâ€ť was his girlfriend Nonnie. Nonnie was not born Jewish. She came from a hippie family that lived for a time on a commune and who worshipped the sacredness of the cosmos in a pretty eclectic way that generally included cannabis and â€™shrooms. Nonnie was what demographers call unchurched. She rarely went to Jewish/school events with Marcus. Then again, Marcus rarely went.
When the dean of HUC took Marcus aside a year before ordination and told him that in order to be ordained Nonnie had to convert, he was, as you might imagine, a tad upset. Marcus fought and cursed, but in those days the notion that a rabbi could have a significant other who wasnâ€™t Jewish was ludicrous. But Nonnie converted, albeit without much joy. They got married, had a kid three years later and divorced two years after that. It still makes Marcus angry that he was forced into a series of actions he opposed.
According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at HUC known for demographic studies of American Jewry, â€śin-marriageâ€ť has historically â€śbeen central to what it means to be a Jew.â€ť Its modern importance, he explains, is amplified because of the ongoing population decline among non-Orthodox Jews, which he attributes largely to intermarriage.
Cohen also argues that American Jews put â€śrabbis at the top of the symbolic hierarchy.â€ť As a result, â€śit is logical for rabbinical schools to hold rabbis to higher standards.â€ť While Cohen affords some merit to the suggestion that intermarried rabbis could serve as models for interfaith communities, he cautions that â€śwe donâ€™t know for sure what the impact of having intermarried rabbis will be upon those families.â€ť We do know, he says, that â€śintermarried rabbis will have no chance of teaching the next generation the importance of marrying Jews.â€ť Or at least, so he said in 2009.
Nearly all of the countryâ€™s rabbinical colleges have firm policies that prohibit the admission and ordination of students who are in committed relationships with partners who are not Jewish. Even as interfaith couples are increasingly being welcomed into congregations of all denominations, they are effectively barred from pursuing the rabbinate.
But as Bob Dylan adjures, â€śthe times they are aâ€™changing.â€ť The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which ordains rabbis for the denominationâ€™s more than 100 congregations across the country, just ended their policy prohibiting applications from students in interfaith relationships. Says Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, â€śWe believe that the only strategy that will work in todayâ€™s world of choice is one that engages rather than polices, one that truly welcomes and provides role models for intermarried Jews rather than one that disowns them.â€ť
And Keren McGinity, a former member of TBA opines, â€śthe Reconstructionist Rabbinical Collegeâ€™s new policy to welcome and graduate Jewish students who are in committed relationships with partners of other faith backgrounds is an excellent, forward-thinking decision.â€ť
But Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, disagrees with McGinityâ€™s assessment and she disagrees with the RRC as well. Eisner, a friend and fellow Wesleyan grad who spoke here for the Margaret Miller Memorial lecture series, hangs onto the atavistic belief that intermarriage is the biggest crisis for American Jewry. She writes that letting interfaith people get too involved, too close with Jewish life is dangerous. She says that â€śâ€¦ at some pointâ€¦ inclusion leads to diminishment. At some critical point, boundaries become so porous that they no longer function as boundaries, and standards become so vacuous that they lose all meaning. This decision brings the Reconstructionist movement to that point, and to the degree that it places pressure on other denominationsâ€”and history suggests that it willâ€”then it risks damaging our religious, moral and spiritual leadership at a time when we need it the most.â€ť
It would be wonderful to find a true whipping boy for the various phenomena that plague postmodern American Jewry. If we could just say intermarriage is the cause of our troubles we can spend a lot of money trying to fix it, lest we damage â€śour religious, moral and spiritual leadershipâ€ť beyond repair. But as Rabbi Waxman says, â€śFor those of you still fighting, the battle was lost years ago. The Pew report, citing that 58 percent of marriages since 2005 are intermarriages, has disabused all of North American Jewry of the notion that Jews intermarrying can somehow be stopped by pressure from families, rabbis, or editorials from editors of Jewish publications.â€ť
Reconstructionist rabbis will choose the partners they choose. If their partner is Jewish, I hope their partner will support them in their work. If their partner is not Jewish, I hope their partner supports them in their work. Intermarriage will not make or break American Jewry. The more open hearted a temple is to welcoming interfaith families, the more likely that synagogue and their interfaith families will thrive.
The true threat to American Jewry, and to mainline Protestant denominations and to Catholicism is the extent to which Americans consider religious and church/synagogue affiliation important. More important than soccer practice, ski trips or sleeping late on weekends. For Jews a synagogue must be a place that provides meaning and community and connection and fun. A synagogue must be like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Thatâ€™s the real work of Jewish survival, not who the rabbi is married to. And to provide that kind of institution is hard and will only become harder.
It would be so much easier to make intermarriage the bugaboo. But itâ€™s not. To make a synagogue relevant and worthwhile for millennials as well as baby boomers is complicated and will require more and more nontraditional solutions. Eisnerâ€™s idea that too much inclusion leads to diminishment is an outdated Conservative movement cryâ€”that has led them over the cliff.
As Tevye said to Golda, â€śItâ€™s a new world.â€ť That must be our mantra now as we consider our trajectory as American Jews, and as a Reform temple in Newton, MA. We are going to have to be courageous and audacious as we dare to move in new ways. Looking back with yearning is not a recipe; just ask Lotâ€™s wife.
Well Iâ€™ve gone and done it. I didnâ€™t mean to make you mad, but I can tell that I did.
There I was, a Jewish girl from New York, living my life, building a career, being a young adult in a big city, when out of nowhereâ€Šâ€”â€ŠBAMâ€Šâ€”â€ŠI fell in love with a kind mid-western man.
He was smart and loving and well, raised in a different faithâ€Šâ€”â€Šbut frankly, the fact that we were in love trumped anything else.
But I didnâ€™t expect you to be so disappointed in me.
You see, this man asked me to marry him, and there we were, planning our weddingâ€Šâ€”â€Ša Jewish weddingâ€Šâ€”â€Šbecause that is what we agreed it would be, because it was meaningful to me and I knew, and he agreed, we would keep Judaism in our lives. So I naturally asked a rabbi to be with us on our big day. he said no, he would not, under these circumstances, bless our union. I asked another and another and yet another and the prospect of having our Jewish wedding dwindled. But I struggled through and found a way to have the ceremony we wanted with a cantoral student who helped us create our beautiful Jewish wedding.
And then I got pregnant. A BOY, what a joy to behold! A blessing in our lives! But my husband had questions that I could not answer about mohels and ritual and foreskin and we sought the counsel of a rabbi to help. We called on your synagogues to find some answers. And we kept calling and calling and messages were left from the kind man who married the Jewish girl again and again, but again we were denied access to you. Once again we stood up for our family and the traditions we wanted to uphold and found a mohel that came to our home and we had a lovely bris for our beautiful boy. One fitting for bringing a Jewish boy into the world.
A third time I sought you outâ€¦ to care for this child and teach him. But as you glared at my tattooed body and asked about my husbandâ€™s background, I was told that your communityâ€™s childrenâ€™s programs were reserved for those who were members and perhaps I should look elsewhere.
And somewhere that day, I lost the fight. I gave up on you right then and there, Judaism. You clearly didnâ€™t want me. There are only so many times you can be turned away before you wonder why you are trying in the first place. You did not want my family, Judaismâ€¦ so I gave up trying.
But I was heartbroken.
I know youâ€™re trying to find a way to welcome us, but youâ€™re not there yet. When we encounter your barriers and your walls we struggle to get through them. And eventually we give up, because it is hard and we donâ€™t want our children to hear your clucking or your message that they are not good enough for you.
Yet, your articles and comments and letters to the editor tell us it is we who are ruining Judaism. It stings to hear that we, the intermarried are destroying Jewish continuity.
But I am stubborn, and thereâ€™s something about you Judaism, thatâ€™s too important to let go. So after I gave up on you, a friend and fellow Jewish professional told me that my experience was not the Judaism she knew and loved and encouraged me to try again. I found my own way to keep the faith in you. I created a Jewish home and holidays and traditions in my own Jewish way. And eventually, I found a community that embraced me and supported my family for who we areâ€Šâ€”â€Šand doesnâ€™t punish us for what weâ€™re not. There are so many of us out here making our own wayâ€¦ but also so many who gave up, never to return.
You see, when you denounce intermarried rabbis and talk about the declining vitality of Judaism, we, the families are listening to you talk about how these rabbisâ€Šâ€”â€Šwhose families closely resemble our ownâ€Šâ€”â€Šdonâ€™t count for you. We hear you tell us, yet again, that we are not good enough but that you are welcoming in the same breath.
So while some of your newspapers and your blogs and your institutions (and your commenters, oh gosh, your commenters) whisper too loudly behind my back and wonder what to do with a â€śproblemâ€ť like my family, my boys will bound through the door this Friday, giddy from the waning of the week and ask â€śMOM? What time is Shabbat?