Steven M. Cohen has asked me to retract my attribution of certain views to him. In "The Next Big Thing is Now: Outreach to the Intermarried" (February 9) I wrote:
Too many Jewish leaders, like Steven Bayme, Steven M. Cohen, and Jack Wertheimer, … don't care if aggressively promoting conversion distresses and pushes away non-Jewish partners who are raising Jewish children--not to mention their Jewish partners and in-laws. These Jewish leaders sanctimoniously preach that such families can't be called "Jewish," that their homes can't be called "holy." Their take-away message: Unconverted non-Jews raising their children as Jews shouldn't be included in the Jewish community--such people and their Jewish behaviors just aren't good enough.
In an email to me dated March 14, 2006, Professor Cohen stated that he does not say, and has never said, that intermarried families raising Jewish children cannot be called "Jewish" or that their homes cannot be called "holy." He stated that I had cast him "as, in effect, a bigot." He also stated that he is "very proud of my long association with my friends and colleagues, Steven Bayme and Jack Wertheimer," and he assured me that he had never heard them "express the sorts of views that you attribute to them and to me."
The basis for the statements in question is "Revisiting and Promoting Conversion" (New York Jewish Week, January 13) by Drs. Bayme and Wertheimer. Decrying the "intemperate responses" to the new efforts to encourage conversion announced by the Reform and Conservative movements, they said: "Others go further, urging that the very term 'interfaith family' be changed to 'Jewish family' when gentile spouses agree to raise their children as Jews." I understood that to mean that in their view, interfaith families raising their children as Jews should not or cannot properly be called "Jewish families." Drs. Bayme and Wertheimer conclude their essay by stating that for intermarried families, "conversion offers the best hope to create 'wholly' Jewish homes as well as 'holy' Jewish homes." I understood that to mean that in their view, in-married and conversionary families have "holy" homes, but intermarried families do not.
Although Professor Cohen's friends and colleagues explicitly or implicitly said that intermarried families who raise their children as Jews cannot call themselves "Jewish families" and do not have "holy" homes, I acknowledged to Professor Cohen that I could not point to any evidence that he himself had made those statements. He requested that I write a letter to the New Jersey Jewish News retracting my attribution to him of those views, and I hereby do so.
As I told Professor Cohen privately, however, I believe that what I said was not unfair to him, given how allied to his friends and colleagues he stands on issues relating to intermarriage. Moreover, I invited Professor Cohen, a most formidable writer and debater, to himself write a letter to the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, distancing himself from the views of his friends and colleagues; he chose not to do so.
What is important in this discussion is the message that interfaith families get from the Jewish community. In a recent paper, "Engaging the Next Generation of American Jews," Professor Cohen suggests that the community has been very welcoming to the intermarried for fifteen years. But it is the polar opposite of welcoming when eminent Jewish leaders suggest to intermarried couples raising Jewish children that their families are not "Jewish," nor their homes "holy."
In his first email to me, Professor Cohen said that my position and actions are "counter to the best interests of the Jewish People and its future." I do not presume to speak for the Jewish People, but I suggest that instead of insisting that I be more careful with attribution, Professor Cohen's considerable talents would be far better spent persuading his friends and colleagues to be more careful not to express views that he himself characterizes as "bigoted."