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Married to It

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Kim and Rob Cavallo had worked out a lot of the tough issues that confront an interfaith family. But when she asked him to get rid of the Christmas tree because it would confuse their two children, Rob, who was raised in an Italian-Scottish Catholic home, pushed back. And he used a strategy he knew would work.

"We went to the rabbi, and I said I would agree to do anything the rabbi says," Rob explained. "And I knew the rabbi would say I could have the tree. I knew he would take the position that if I couldn't be who I truly am, that would destroy the marriage and the family."

Rob was right.   

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, the Conservative rabbi who had counseled the family in the past and built up a trusting relationship with them, told the Cavallos to keep the Christmas tree.

"Here I am sitting down with this family, trying to help them initiate a new Jewish relationship for their family, and you can't demand this kind of give-it-all-to-me-now approach, because it's just not fair," Vogel said. "If somebody like Rob is willing to build a Jewish home, you have to give that time to evolve. So for that family, at that time--and that is a very important distinction--in the evolution of their journey, I felt it was the right place to begin."

Now the family actively celebrates Hanukkah--they also sleep in their sukkah, a wooden hut for observing the holiday of Sukkot, and they celebrate Shabbat, the Sabbath, every Friday night--and they share Christmas with daddy.

Kim and Rob have come a long way since Kim showed up at Temple Aliyah looking for a preschool six years ago and ended up in Vogel's office, moved to tears by a Judaism she was ready to reconnect with. With Vogel's help, Kim and Rob made compromises, with Rob agreeing to send the children to day school, sometimes joining her at synagogue and even getting into the philanthropic work that Kim took on at The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance and Heschel West Day School.

"Rabbi Vogel was really supportive of us as a couple, not just of me as the Jewish partner, and that was key in making it so my husband felt super comfortable, not feeling like every time he turned around we were taking something away from him," Kim said. "We've been able to take baby steps and incorporate Judaism into our lives, not have it take over and make it so Rob doesn't know where he stands and doesn't feel comfortable in his own home."

Not that it hasn't been difficult.

"Marriage is a series of compromises, but I guess religion seems so pure, and when you have to dissect it all the time, it loses a little," Kim said.

Last year Temple Aliyah honored Kim and Rob--who is a Grammy-winning producer of such entertainers as Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins--for their service to the wider Jewish community.

The fact that an intermarried couple was honored at a Conservative shul, or synagogue, is an indication of a newly surfacing willingness among a growing number of rabbis--even traditional rabbis--to integrate intermarried couples into Jewish life.

"Rather than tolerating them, we need to openly embrace them," Vogel said. "If we really want to help them create caring, committed Jewish homes, then we have to actively welcome them."

Roughly half of all American Jews who marry choose non-Jews, a number that held relatively steady in both the 1990 and the 2001 National Jewish Population Surveys. The vast majority of those families--two-thirds, according to some numbers, a lot more according to others--will write Judaism out of their lives. The children of intermarriages have only a 25 percent chance of marrying another Jew.

"If nothing is done, you are dealing with the hemorrhaging of the Jewish community," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who has initiated an aggressive new outreach program at the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom.

However, others fear the open embrace will send a message that intermarriage is fine and that long-held Jewish norms will be left in tatters.

"We have a responsibility to educate and inspire [interfaith couples] to try to raise a Jewish family," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "If you ignore them or alienate them, you lose the real potential to impact their lives.

"At the same time," he said, "I think one has to be careful not to ignore the fact that the goal is to raise in-marriage, so policy has to be designed along the lines of not creating the false impression that there is no difference as to whether you in-marry or intermarry, because it could all be fixed up anyway."

Even within the Orthodox community, there are subtle shifts in attitude.

While intermarriage is still condemned in no uncertain terms--most Orthodox rabbis advise their congregants not to attend the mixed marriages of immediate family members--only a small minority of Orthodox Jews still follow the age-old custom of sitting shiva, going into mourning, over children who intermarry.

"In terms of the statement made through intermarriage, it is not the same act of rebellion it once was because we live in such an open culture," said Rabbi Asher Brander of the Westwood Kehilla, "so all the accessories that used to go with intermarriage--like sitting shiva--I really haven't heard of that being done today."

There is a recognition today, more than in the past, that Jews who intermarry--even the growing number of strongly affiliated Jews who intermarry--still want to keep Judaism as an integral part of their lives, and if the non-Jewish spouse is willing to go along, the community is more willing to embrace him or her.

What the Jewish community is facing then is a fluctuating definition of success in the universe of Jewish marriage. Is the goal to bolster Jewish identity to lower the rate of intermarriage? Is it to increase the rate of conversion? And if a spouse doesn't convert but agrees to raise the children Jewish, is that too a success?

Even those who hold up prevention as the answer--pointing to the fact that the more Jewish education a person has had, the less likely he or she is to intermarry-- acknowledge that even hugely successful efforts to encourage in-marriage will still leave hundreds of thousands of interfaith families who need to be tended to or lost.

Most in the community strive to uphold the Jewish-Jewish marriage as the ideal while reaching out to the intermarrieds, but others say those goals can be mutually exclusive.

"When you state affirmatively that intermarriage is not a good thing and should be prevented, that has negative consequences for people who are already intermarried or who are going to be intermarried," said Edmund Case, founder of, a Web site with 20,000 readers. "What they are going to remember is that their relationship is not approved of and then they won't want to get involved."

While to some this smacks of giving up on in-marriage altogether, demographer Gary Tobin thinks that a radical change in attitude is what can turn the intermarriage numbers around, bringing in converts to cushion the deficit from those who leave the fold.

"The Jewish community has an enormous opportunity to grow itself if it quit being so insular and paranoid," Tobin said. "There are a lot of people interested in being part of the Jewish people, and it is our fear and obstructionism that makes intermarriage a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster.

"If you don't do anything to help those families be Jewish, then you shouldn't be surprised when a lot of them end up not being Jewish," said Tobin, who spoke at Valley Beth Shalom on Dec. 3.

When it comes to creative and proactive outreach to intermarrieds, Los Angeles is far ahead of the rest of the nation, Tobin said. Reform synagogues in Southern California consistently win a disproportionate share of the movement's annual awards for outreach.

At Valley Beth Shalom, Schulweis has made outreach a priority, focusing a Rosh Hashanah sermon on it and hosting a lecture series on the topic through the fall. He established a mentoring program, in which members are paired with those who are unaffiliated.

An intermarriage discussion group at Shomrei Torah in West Hills met for six weeks this fall and will be followed by a more intense program. The group at Shomrei Torah was led by Ken Elfand, who was trained as a lay consultant through the Keruv program of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs (FJMC), a group on the cutting edge of pushing the Conservative movement toward involving intermarrieds in Jewish life.

The program, which also publishes material and holds conferences, initially met with resistance both at the top levels of the Conservative movement in New York and among some lay leaders.

"Some institutions are afraid that by reaching out to intermarrieds, we are conveying the message that we are accepting of intermarriage," said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of FJMC. But grass-roots support from synagogue lay leaders and rabbis in the field has made the program a success.

"We find that couples and members' children who have intermarried are for the first time feeling comfortable going to synagogue, because they realize they are not going to be turned away," Simon said.

The Reform movement's "Taste of Judaism" three-session icebreaker has reached hundreds of thousands across the country, as have its programs aimed at preschool and Hebrew school parents.

The success rate of such programs is impressive. A survey conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute, a group in New York, found that synagogue affiliation, ritual observance and cultural participation all jumped considerably for intermarried families who had taken part in programs as diverse as intense introduction to Judaism classes or one-time events.

There is a growing bank of anecdotal evidence that suggests that more people convert after marriage, usually attached to a life-cycle event, according to Tobin.

Schulweis, along with Tobin and a handful of other leaders, encourage both rabbis and family members to invite potential Jews into the faith. Jews-by -choice, Schulweis said, are often more committed than the born Jews they marry, a fact that should help the Jewish community get past its ingrained prejudice against converts and the misconception that converts "water down" Judaism.

However, some non-Jews bristle at the idea of being asked to convert.

"Just the idea that someone would want you to convert is so upsetting," said Judy Arad (not her real name), who has sent kids to day school and kept a kosher home for 20 years, despite never having converted.

"It's such a personal decision--it doesn't get any more personal than that," she continued. "I don't think anyone should ever convert because they are getting married. If you convert, it should be because you are really embracing Judaism."

Schulweis said it is all in the approach, in not offering an ultimatum but an opportunity.

"I am asking for them to feel the ambiance of Jewish wisdom, and I am convinced they can be persuaded to eventually become Jews-by-choice," Schulweis said. "It must be a process as opposed to 'do it now for marriage or it's all off,'" he said.

That was the case of Charity Brockman. Raised in a strict Christian home, where her father preached his own brand of Christianity, Charity felt no affinity toward her faith. When she and her husband, Adam, were married by a Reform rabbi, she had no desire to convert but agreed to raise the children Jewish.

The Brockmans celebrated the Jewish holidays with his family at Valley Beth Shalom and had a Christmas tree at home.

"As time drew nearer for us to think about having kids, I wanted to take a class or get some more knowledge about what does 'raising my children Jewish' mean," she said.

She enrolled in the University of Judaism's introduction to Judaism class, which has a high rate of conversion among its graduates.

"I think if they had been pressuring me, it would have pushed me away from the idea, but they were so open and accepting, saying this is what it is, this is our community and this is our lifestyle," Brockman continued. "The fact that I felt so enveloped in the community gave me a real inside view of what it meant to be Jewish."

Brockman converted last October and renewed her vows with her husband. Their daughter, Rachel, was born a few weeks later.

To get to the point where an intermarried couple feels comfortable being part of the community, rabbis are figuring out both halachic, or Jewish legal, technicalities and the choreography of including non-Jews in synagogue life.

Can a non-Jewish parent of a bar or bat mitzvah address the child from the bimah? Can the parent stand on the bimah, or podium, for an aliyah (blessing before or after reading from the Torah) or even say the blessings? And rabbis face a whole series of questions around brises, or ritual circumcisions, baby namings and even funerals when a non-Jewish spouse dies.

In Reform synagogues, non-Jews are welcomed as members. Official policy in the Conservative movement does not allow non-Jewish members, although most shuls now offer a family membership to intermarrieds.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah, who has been officiating at interfaith weddings for 35 years, complains that too many of his Reform colleagues are being pulled by Reform's return to tradition and won't officiate at intermarriages, effectively closing the door on any relationship between the couple and the rabbi.

Rabbis who won't officiate at intermarriages are more sensitive today than they were 20 years ago, working to soften the rejection of "I can't marry you" and to leave the door open for future affiliation.

That is an approach that may have sat better with Arad, rather than the outright pressure to convert she received from family, friends and the rabbi before she married.

"I remember how horrible I felt after we spoke," Arad said of the Westside Conservative rabbi who she and her husband met with before they married. "I remember the rabbi saying that our kids would be rejected from the community, that we were going to have problems, that life would be difficult and that we were doomed if I didn't convert. It was all negative, with no sensitivity or compassion."

Today, compassion has entered into the framework of intermarriage, even in Orthodox circles, where intermarriage retains nearly all of its historic stigma. Still, outreach-oriented groups are more likely than in the past to accept non-Jewish partners who want to learn about Judaism.

Blanket rules have given way to a more nuanced approach, in which rabbis take into account each individual situation and then may decide, for instance, that it is not appropriate to follow the standard dictum of turning a potential convert away three times.

"In some cases, because of concern for the family, you do what you can to unify the couple and unify the family, to get them to express Judaism more and get them to a relationship that is more peaceful," said Rabbi Yaacov Deyo, who runs programs and meets individually with young couples through Aish HaTorah. "We have our beliefs, and we have to love people, and we need to do both."

Tobin argues, though, that passive tolerance won't do the trick. What is needed, he said, is serious investment. And that, he noted, is nowhere to be found across the spectrum of the Jewish community.

"If you look at the total budget being spent on helping interfaith families become part of the Jewish community, it is as statistically close to zero as it could possibly be," Tobin said.

While the Conservative movement publishes some material, the only program they have right now is through the FJMC. In its major budget crisis a year ago, the Reform movement cut all its regional outreach directors, though enough money was raised locally to keep the Pacific Southwest regional director going for two more years.

"It is the biggest mistake the Jewish community makes, not spending more time and effort and dollars on these folks," he said.

Tobin is convinced, as is Schulweis, that bringing people in does not have to mean lowering standards or watering down Judaism. In a best-case scenario, the spouse converts and the community grows. In a second-best case, the spouse doesn't convert, but the family is Jewish.

For now, Kim and Rob Cavallo are happy to be in that second camp.

"My own Italian Catholic heritage is too strong to allow me to turn my back on it," Rob said, "so we live in a mixed household, and it actually works."

With the children in day school and the home unmistakably Jewish, Rob and Kim are both happy with the choices they've made.

"We wanted to give our kids something that Kim did have and I didn't, which was a religious moral background and a feeling of belonging to a community," Rob said, "which I think is great gift."

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. 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. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Julie Gruenbaum Fax

Julie Gruenbaum Fax writes for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

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