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In the Mix: Jewish-Gentile In The Jewish State

Reprinted by permission from The Jewish Week, May 14, 2008.

When I visited Israel for the first time, I fell in love.

Not with any individual, although, like seemingly everyone else in the Overseas Student Program at Tel Aviv University, I harbored a hormonally charged admiration for the tan, arrogant, gun-toting young sabras who roamed the land.

Rather, I fell in love with the entire country: the sunshine and palm trees, the impatient energy and bustle, the danger, the compactness, the language I'd never before studied and this primal, tribal feeling of connectedness--of belonging here simply for being part of the Jewish family.

Felafel MapTwo years later, I volunteered on a kibbutz and soon after as an intern at a Jerusalem nonprofit. This time, my love was divided, however, between the Promised Land and my non-Jewish boyfriend, whom I'd met the summer after I graduated from college.

When Joe visited me toward the end of my year-long internship, I was struck by how different our Israel experiences were. Where for me, Israel was all about belonging and identity, for him it was a fascinating, historically rich foreign country that doubled as the backdrop for the Bible stories he had learned from the readings at Mass.

On a solo jaunt up to the Galilee (while I worked in Jerusalem), he stayed at a hostel run by nuns, something it never would have occurred to me to do. He went sightseeing in East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter without any concerns for safety, identifying as neither Us nor Them in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite our different perspectives, I've always been pleased that Joe, now my husband, has shared Israel with me. Even when we argue about Middle East politics, with him generally more critical than I am about things like human rights violations, I feel comfortable knowing he has a respect and affection for the place and its people that comes with having spent time there. "Israel is one of the harder things for the Jewish partner in an interfaith couple to explain," says Helena McMahon, manager of Interfaith Connection, a San Francisco program for interfaith couples and families where one of the partners is Jewish.

Next week McMahon (who is herself intermarried) will lead nine couples on her group's first-ever interfaith tour of Israel. The 10-day trip may be the beginning of a mini-trend. An Atlanta group departs a few days later for a similar tour, this one heavily subsidized by a Jewish family foundation. And the Jewish federation in Portland, Ore., is also planning an interfaith Israel trip.

What's driving this spate of mixed-marriage missions?

The Atlanta journey was inspired by a trip last year for recent converts, something that intensified the participants' commitment to Judaism.

Mitch Cohen, the Jewish educator who led that trip and will be leading this one as well, is hoping this trip will have a similar impact and that the 14 couples, who will be accompanied by a rabbi, will return with a shared commitment to raising Jewish children.

That doesn't mean the gentile partners' needs will be ignored, however. Both the Atlanta and San Francisco groups will visit many Christian sites and will also have discussions about interfaith relationship challenges. And there will be no Jewish hard sell.

"I've told [the non-Jewish participants] over and over, I have no agenda to get you to convert," says Cohen. "If you do, great; if not, great: I'm interested in your children.'" Marisa Brown, who is intermarried and is organizing the Portland trip (scheduled for next March), said she recently visited Israel for the first time with a Jewish women's group and "kept thinking I just wish my husband were here for this."

"I thought if I feel this way, there must be many other people like me out there who want to share Israel with their [gentile] spouse, and maybe there hasn't been a welcoming way to do that yet," she continued.

Inspired by Taglit-Birthright Israel, the successful program that has taken over 160,000 young Jews on free trips to the Jewish state, Atlanta's Cohen is hoping one day to see interfaith couples Israel journeys offered from communities throughout North America.

But it remains to be seen whether an Israel experience will have the same positive life-changing impact on interfaith couples that it's had on Birthright Israel's all-Jewish cohorts. While the overwhelming majority of gentiles married to Jews are of Christian background, and thus likely to connect on some level to the Holy Land, they obviously aren't going to feel the same pull to a Jewish state that Jews do. Plus, being together in the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity has the potential to be very meaningful--but it also can intensify anxieties about religious differences. What happens when the Christian spouse has a spiritual experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Jewish spouse, after visiting the Western Wall, resolves to start keeping a kosher kitchen?

Adding to the challenges is that Israel, which is constantly struggling with just what it means to be a Jewish country, is not the most hospitable place for interfaith couples or their children. Robin Margolis, the coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network--an organization for adult children and other interested descendants of intermarried Jews--worries that these trips won't give participants an accurate picture of the country's challenges, particularly its "elaborate and entrenched system of discrimination against members of interfaith families."

Because the Orthodox rabbinate has a "stranglehold on matters of Jewish status," Margolis says, there are thousands of adult children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of intermarriage in Israel who are officially Israeli citizens and who consider themselves Jewish, yet cannot have a Jewish wedding (civil weddings are not allowed in Israel), be buried in a Jewish cemetery or even be identified as Jewish on official documents. The problem is particularly pronounced among immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Not telling interfaith couples about this from the get-go sets them up for later disenchantment when they do learn the truth, Margolis says. And it also deprives the activists working on behalf of Israel's interfaith families--like the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center and the Association for the Protection of Mixed Families in Israel--of support from those Americans who might be most inclined to help them out.

On the other hand, it's not hard to see how trip organizers might fear that the intricacies of Israel's religion-state tensions and its "Who is a Jew?" conflicts might be a bit much for newcomers to absorb on a whirlwind tour.

Nonetheless, while Israel's religious establishment may condemn interfaith relationships, many secular and liberal Israelis are more accepting, particularly when the gentile partner is Zionist and willing to give the children a Jewish upbringing. Jennifer Allan, a 31-year-old reader from Ann Arbor, Mich., told me that when she brought her non-Jewish boyfriend, Mark, to Israel recently, her Israeli cousins not only welcomed him but nudged him to propose to her already. A few days later he did just that, atop Masada.

An international program that sends thousands of young Jews to Israel each year for free. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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