July 2023 News from the Center

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Progress

The Forward ran a great article by Joanne Kaufman: ‘Are you a Jew?’ To serve on a synagogue board, increasingly the answer can be ‘no’.  Kaufman says that the Jewish movements “don’t track the number of congregations with non-Jewish board members… But conversations with leaders in those movements indicate that while it’s not typical to have a non-Jew on the board, it’s no longer rare.”

Kaufman apparently was not aware that there actually is data on this important issue. The Center conducted a survey of Reform congregations’ interfaith inclusion policies in 2019; 50% of the movement’s congregations participated; the by-laws of 43% of congregations permitted partners from different faith backgrounds to serve as members of the board, and of 21% permitted them to serve as officers (not necessarily including president). The Center conducted a survey of Reconstructionist congregations’ interfaith inclusion policies in 2021; 48% of the movement’s synagogues and havurot participated; 68% permitted partners from different faith backgrounds to serve as Board members, 66% as officers other than President; 28% as President; 2% did not permit them to hold leadership positions.

The Center advocates for treating partners from different faith backgrounds as equal to their Jewish partners. More synagogues allowing them to serve as board members and officers is an important step in that direction.

The Interfaith Families Project posted an edited transcription of a great talk by Rabbi Lex Rofeberg of Judaism Unbound and discussion with Susan Katz Miller. You can also watch a video of the presentation, which has a lot more than the transcription, here.

Missed Opportunities

An eminent group of Jewish leaders penned an eJewishPhilanthropy letterabout efforts like “Our Common Destiny,” a “global effort to build stronger bonds between and among Jews all over the world,” mentioning ENTER: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, and Israeli President Issac Herzog’s “Kol Ha’am – Voice of the People: The President’s Initiative for Worldwide Jewish Dialogue.”

The group announces “a new, grassroots global initiative” that aims to “provide a platform for Jews of all ages, celebrate their appreciation for the Jewish values, principles and heritage we all share, reaffirm the importance of Jewish peoplehood and declare their commitment to strengthening the global Jewish community.” They invite people to share their ideas at info@globaljewry.org.

Dialogue and unity are laudable goals, but the descriptions of efforts like this tend to be the same – there’s never even a nod to the many partners from different backgrounds who are participating in Jewish communities; there’s tone-deafness to their pervasive presence in the North American Jewish community – which needs to be inclusive of them in order to be strengthened.

Is This Really Necessary?

Book author Andrew Ridker wrote a cute storyabout how he tracked down the subjects of a photograph of two teenagers awkwardly slow dancing at a bmitzvah, because  it was perfect for the cover of his book. Unfortunately, he went off the rails with this: “The short, brown-haired boy dancing with the tall, blonde girl seems to stand in for…  the history of the Jewboy and the shiksa.” Ridker said that tracking down the photo subjects taught him “something about the state of Jewish-American identity today.” I hope drawing distinctions like that isn’t what he learned.

In Other News

The May program on Radical Inclusion at the Springfield MA JCC is now available on the Centers YouTube channel here.

The last News from the Center missed two things from late June:

  • a nice piece by Rabbi David Levin in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, Intermarriage Can Enrich Our Community
  • a report in the Jerusalem Post that as many as three quarters of Russian immigrants to Israel are not Jewish themselves – they are able to immigrate because under current law – which the current government wants to change – having one Jewish grandparent is sufficient.

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I hope your summer continues to be good,

June 2023 News from the Center

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Re-CHARGING Reform – More Silence and Missed Opportunities

There was an important conference May 31-June 1, Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism. More than 300 rabbis and lay leaders attended, according to JNSand Religion News Service accounts. I wasn’t invited, but have watched several of the sessions on youtube, including the keynote by lead organizer Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (which you can also read here) and a panel of Reform movement leaders offering their vision of the future.

An important motivation for the gathering, as the JNS story puts it, apparently was “lagging Reform synagogue attendance and declining revenues.” I continue to be astonished when Jewish leaders do not emphasize the imperative to be more inclusive of more interfaith families as key to reversing declining engagement – but that’s what happened at this gathering.

Coincidentally, the New York Times had a fascinating opinion piece on “dechurching” – the decline in people regularly attending houses of worship which the piece says is particularly prevalent among Jews. It notes that people are looking for new spiritual communities that are “less exclusionary than the denominations they were raised in;” one, who was raised Jewish but “became disillusioned when I could not find a rabbi who would conduct an interfaith marriage ceremony,” joined and now leads the Interfaith Families Project in the DC area.

Any lesson about not being exclusionary was not reflected in the movement leaders’ session at the Re-CHARGING Reform conference. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the URJ, did say that “our numeric strength is largely due to our inclusion of interfaith families who have felt our loving embrace… an embrace that has been transformational.” He continued that those not yet connected “still include many interfaith families” – but said nothing about what could be done to connect more of them.

Rabbi Hara Person, head of the CCAR that serves rabbis, said nothing about helping them engage and include interfaith families; she did mention the importance of the CCAR’s resolutions – which still include an exclusionary one that says “we do not condone mixed marriage” and “the ideal toward which we rabbis strive, teach and lead is that Jews should marry Jews.” (Coincidentally, a Tablet article on Reform rabbis seeing “an increase in conversion – much of it coming from the LGBTQ+ community” notes that the CCAR “runs year-round programming supporting the LGBTQ+ community and clergy, such as training for inclusive worship life cycle events.”)

Andrew Rehfeld, head of HUC, referred to the smallest entering classes at the Reform seminary in decades – with no mention of its exclusionary policy not to admit or ordain rabbinic students who are in interfaith relationships.

Rabbi Hirsch in his keynote said we need to figure out how to engage the unengaged and to attract many more people. It made me nervous when he emphasized Jewish particularism and the particularistic covenant of the Jewish people, because that could mean circling the wagons and including only those who are Jewish (including those who convert) and not also those who do Jewish – an exclusionary approach that will not attract or engage interfaith families.

In another missed opportunity, the Jewish Federations of North America announced their priorities for the coming year, which include (in addition to Ukraine, security, antisemitism, and Israel) expanding their equity, diversity and inclusion initiative – an effort that focuses on Jews of color and not on interfaith families.

The silence of Reform movement and federation leaders on including interfaith families fails to counter the continuing Orthodox voice in Israel that denounces any inclusion of interfaith families at all. There was an awful diatribe in Arutz Sheva by an Orthodox rabbi and professor, Dov Fischer, who contends that many of those reported to be Jewish in the 2020 Pew report aren’t “in fact” Jewish because they don’t meet Orthodox standards. In a previous piece, Alan Cooperman, principal author of the Pew report, aptly explained that like all other surveys, Pew is based on self-reporting of identity, and that Pew didn’t take a normative position on the question “who is a Jew?” That’s something that our movement and communal leaders need to do.

More Studies

The Cohen Center released another Jewish community study, of Portland OR. This summer I’m hoping to update my analysis of the Cohen Center’s studies to include the most recent ones. In the meantime, I noted that 63% of married couples are intermarried, and that while 51% of inmarried respondents feel some or a great deal of a sense of belonging to the local Jewish community, only 14% of intermarried respondents do.

In Other News

  • There were not one but two articles about parents disinheriting children who intermarried.
  • Another celebrity with intermarried parents, basketball’s Amari Bailey, identifies as Jewish.

Interfaith Marriage in Pop Culture

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I’ve been troubled by the negative messages communicated about interfaith marriage in pop culture for a long time.

Back in 2003, the TV show “The O. C.” had an episode about “Chrismukkah,” a blending of Hanukkah and Christmas. I wrote “Chrismukkah” Is a Bad Idea, saying that “as the antithesis of maintaining special traditions, [Chrismukkah] only confuses children being raised with one religious identity in an interfaith family.”

A few years later, Jennifer Kaplan, a very talented filmmaker, made a documentary, Mixed Blessings, that featured four interfaith couples. I appeared with Jen and Marion Usher at a talkback after a showing of the film at the Washington DC JCC. My position was that the film did not show any happy Jewish outcomes, so the message was that interfaith marriage did not result in positive Jewish engagement.

This August, there were three problematic examples of negative messages in film, podcasts and TV.

American Birthright

The excellent Boston Jewish Film Festival included a new documentary, American Birthright, which I found to be very disturbing. Part of the movie is about filmmaker Becky Bordo’s journey of discovery of what being Jewish means to her. That part is fine. Anyone who wants to become observant in an Orthodox way, more power to them.

Becky’s journey is prompted by her sister marrying a partner from a different faith background, the first time that has happened in their family. That part of the movie, that trashes interfaith marriage, is not fine. While there are some contrary voices, the overwhelming message that comes through is that intermarriage is a “time bomb,” it threatens the survival of the Jewish people, one who intermarries “cuts the chain,” a Jew has to be separate, the children of intermarriage won’t be Jewish. One rabbi intimates that Becky’s sister really isn’t of a different religion than her fiancée, because of her lack of Jewish practice.

Another rabbi, who apparently is a renowned teacher of kabbalah and spirituality, says that “You can’t find your soul mate outside of your soul family” and that Becky’s sister “disconnected herself from a level of potential, that’s the truth of intermarriage.” How can a person who expresses such hateful views teach anything about spiritual practices and self-development? How is it different from saying that Black people are inferior or that LGBTQ practices are evil?

This promotion of hateful views about interfaith marriage is extremely disappointing. The messages turn interfaith couples away from Jewish engagement. That outweighs any value American Birthright has as an exploration of one person’s journey. I agree with 18Doors’ Molly Kazin Marshall, who is “sick” of how the film “perpetuates harmful stereotypes about interfaith marriage.” I’m disappointed that Jewish film festivals are choosing to include the film and that it is getting glowing reviews.

Bonjour Chai

A recent episode of the Bonjour Chai podcast asked, Will Interfaith Marriages Save Judaism – Or Destroy It? Bonjour Chai is hosted by Avi Finegold, Ilana Zackon and David Sklar and is produced in part by the Canadian Jewish News. The episode was sparked by Sklar’s recent wedding to his husband, who is not Jewish; the wedding apparently was a wonderful celebration, officiated by Sklar’s Reform rabbi, Mark Glickman, in Calgary.

The hosts interview two Reform rabbis in Canada, Rabbi Lily Kowalski of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, and Rabbi Philip Bregman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Sholom in Vancouver, to “tackle the big questions, including whether an interfaith wedding can be truly Jewish, how parents in interfaith relationships can instill Judaism in their children’s lives, and whether interfaith marriages might well spell the end of Judaism—or actually save us.”

Rabbi Kowalski’s part of the interview is fine, she expresses what I would describe as the current position of most Reform rabbis, who will officiate for weddings of interfaith couples on certain conditions, usually that the couple commit having a Jewish home and children.

But the part of the interview with Rabbi Bregman was outrageous. Rabbi Bregman was ordained in 1975, so he is probably in his mid-70s, and thankfully he says he only does occasional weddings these days. He opposes officiation at weddings of interfaith couples because the definition of a Jewish marriage is that it is between two Jews, and if it’s not a Jewish wedding, a rabbi has no role. Upwards of 80% of his colleagues disagree.

David Sklar asks politely but with evident frustration whether he thinks that saying no will push Jews away – they won’t feel part of Jewish communities if they’re not accepted with their partner; Rabbi Bregman’s answer is to talk about boundaries and say they are welcome to participate but subject to our rules. He even equates an interfaith couple asking a rabbi to officiate, to someone asking to bring non-kosher food into a synagogue.

The worst thing is Rabbi Bregman saying that when he did weddings, 90% of the children of intermarried couples, when they were around 25 years old, would not identify with any type of Judaism; pressed by Sklar whether that is a fact or an assumption, he says “absolutely.” That’s just not true, and it’s outdated; the 2020 Pew Report (pp. 43-44) says that 21% of children born before 1970 of one Jewish parent identified as Jewish, while an increasing percentage, 47% of those born between 1970 and 2000, do so. Or maybe the worst thing is Rabbi Bregman referring to “bastardizing” Jewish wedding traditions for your personal preference. And of course he’s “not into” children of intermarriage celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa, etc., “we know what happens with that.”

This is really awful stuff. It’s one thing for Orthodox rabbis to trash interfaith marriage, as in American Birthright; but it’s tiresome and disappointing to hear Reform rabbis do the same, even older ones.

The hosts play a clip of Rabbi Glickman’s comments at Sklar’s wedding, and he got it right – he says the moment was foreordained from the time of creation, and is the kind of truly sacred moment that God wants to have.

The Rehearsal

After buzz in the Jewish press, I watched episode 5 of Nathan Fielder’s new HBO show, “The Rehearsal.” The premise of the show is kind of crazy – Fielder is rehearsing various situations that people deal with, in this case being married and raising children with actors he recruits, in this case his “wife” Angela and his five or six year old “son” Adam. In this episode, we see Angela supervising Adam reading something about Jesus; then Nathan gingerly asking first about exposing Adam to Jewish traditions, then about celebrating Hanukkah as well as Christmas. Angela is not receptive, at a critical point refusing to expose Adam to Judaism because “Judaism denies that Christ came and died for us. I can’t deny that. I wouldn’t raise a child to deny that. Because it’s the truth.” Nathan goes on secretly to take Adam to a synagogue and to a Hebrew tutor, who then confronts Angela, declaring her an anti-Semite. The episode ends with Angela leaving the show, and Nathan’s parents coming to celebrate Hanukkah with him and Adam.

Like I said, the entire premise of the show is crazy – not real. There are some underlying truths. One is that many young adult Jewish men who haven’t been very Jewishly engaged as adults find that it’s important to them to pass on Jewish traditions to a child. Another is that interfaith couples should talk about what’s important about religious traditions in their lives early on, certainly before getting married.

But what’s disturbing about the episode is the message that interfaith relationships are fraught with this kind of conflict. I completely disagree with the Forward’s Mira Fox, who says that the show gets “at some pretty cutting truths… the nearly unavoidable conflict in Christian-Jewish relationships.” Later Fox acknowledges that in real life, Angela would never marry someone who wasn’t a Christian.

In another great review of the episode, Hajdenberg says “The dynamic depicted in the show may not be a perfect example of a real-life situation.” That’s putting it very mildly.

JTA’s Jackie Hajdenberg interviewed the real-life cantor who plays the Hebrew tutor on the show, Miriam Eskenasy, who describes the reality of many interfaith relationships:

I would say more than half of the kids that I’ve worked with come from interfaith families. My grandson is half not-Jewish. [W]hat I’m finding out is that, most often than not, it’s the non-Jewish parent who makes the commitment to raise the Jewish child, and takes the kid to the bar mitzvah lessons, is invested in learning Hebrew, or asking questions about stuff or being interested — whether they convert or not.

You’d never guess watching the show that that is the reality – a reality I’d love to see depicted in pop culture.

Awakenings: An Important New Book that Doesn’t Grapple with Inclusion

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An important new book about the current state and future of American Judaism takes a positive approach to welcoming and engaging interfaith families – but doesn’t grapple with the fundamental challenging issues involved in including partners from different faith backgrounds.

In Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging, Rabbis Joshua Stanton and Benjamin Spratt challenge the narrative of decline of Jewish life in America, seeing instead many signs of growth in spiritual practice, Jewish learning and community building. They issue a call to action that will enable Judaism to “bloom as a wisdom tradition, accessible to all, providing tools to meet the deepest needs of today.”

Stanton and Spratt are critical of the rhetoric of “continuity crisis which prioritizes endogamy over partnering for love and ignores the far more complicated question of how we can enable more people to find meaning in Jewish ritual, ideas, community, or experience.” They say (p. 23) “it is long overdue to view [exogamy] as the literal embrace of American Jews” and that intermarriage “opens up remarkable opportunities for demographic growth and social influence.” (At one unfortunately edited point (pp. 47-8), the authors say that “rising rates of intermarriage … tell the story of decline,” followed many lines later with “The American Diaspora may be better off nonetheless.” It’s clear from the book as a whole that the authors do not view intermarriage as a sign of decline.)

Throughout the book, Stanton and Spratt use various formulations like “people who are Jewishly connected,” “Jew-ish and Jew-adjacent people,” “people who are not Jewish but are entwined in Jewish life,” “people connected through family or friendship to Jews.” I would have liked to see more explicit references to “interfaith couples,” “interfaith families,” and in particular to the partners of Jews who are from different faith backgrounds. (At one point (p. 97) the authors seem to go out of their way not to refer to partners in interfaith relationships: “[O]ur communal institutions should do even more to reach out to and care for those who do not have two Jewish parents, who are not Ashkenazic, who are not straight, and are not partnered.”)

Nevertheless, the authors speak about “fellow travelers” (another formulation) in incredibly positive ways. I greatly appreciated their recognition of the distinction between being Jewish and doing Jewish: “We should even look beyond people who identify themselves as Jews for life. Much as we should continue honoring membership in a people, we should also acknowledge how people can be Jewish, do Jewish, and experience Jewish in more ephemeral ways.” (p. 97) “Our focus should be on doing Jewish, not simply being Jewish in a passive way that prioritizes ancestry over action.” (p. 124) They even suggest that as more and more people engage with Torah,

“the more Torah itself will grow… Our fellow travelers will come to guide our path and ask questions that biological Jews might never have inquired about – and come to define our diasporic approaches. Those on this edge of Jewish life are already awakening us all to what might be possible and demonstrating the extent to which our ‘core’ so often fails to meet our needs.” (p. 118)

Stanton and Spratt clearly understand the need for welcoming and inclusion: “The Ashkenazic, heteronormative, nuclear-family-centered, static assumptions of Jewish communal life may inadvertently hurt people who don’t fit neatly into those categories when they seek to engage with communities and organizations whose implicit assumptions exclude them. As a result, they may feel marginalized.” (p. 96) But they gloss over the distinction between welcoming, where one’s presence as a guest is appreciated, and inclusion, where one feels that they belong. For example, referring to the “larger story” of the Covid pandemic, they say “It is about total inclusivity, the welcoming of people irrespective of background, identity, or how they engage Jewishly.” (p. 73)

The authors refer to the importance of belonging and inclusion many times:

  • “The American Diaspora continues to stretch its understanding of who belongs, with growing work on inclusion of people of all racial, gender, sexual, and religious identities. Still other people call out for additional embrace [including] those who live Jewishly in the absence of formal conversion.” (p. 46)
  • Those willing to see the opportunity of wisdom and vibrancy offered by “multifaith families, Jewishly adjacent,” and others, can help “turn Jewish communities into mosaics of creativity and belonging.” (p. 46)
  • The current needs of “Jew-ish, and Jew-adjacent people already blaze new paths of belonging and engagement.” (p. 37)

The authors also touch upon the challenging issues involved in inclusion: “Many of our institutions remain outdated in their notions of belonging, wasting precious energy on questions such as whether Jewish clergy should bless an interfaith wedding, rather than actively embracing people who seek Jewish learning and spiritual practices.” (p. 96) But they don’t come to grips with the need to adapt attitudes and policies in order to consider and treat partners from different faith backgrounds as equals to their Jewish partners, which I argue is essential for them to feel that they belong.

At times it seems that the authors believe that conversion is required for a partner from a different faith background to be included. After referring to Lydia Kukoff and Rabbi Alexander Schindler bringing the concept of choosing Judaism to the mainstream nearly fifty years ago (p. 23), they say “Our institutions are reaching out and embracing the possibility of demographic growth.” Do they mean to say that demographic growth is only possible with conversion? Referring to the 2020 Pew report, they note that there may be one million people who have converted, then say (p. 49) “Their involvements, interests, and conceptualizations of Jewish life may well constitute the future of the American Diaspora.” Do they mean that the involvements and interests of unconverted partners will not?  When they talk (p. 99) about “welcoming many more people who seek to forever entwine their lives with the Jewish people, the Jewish community, and ways of life inspired by Jewish tradition” – does “forever entwining” require conversion, or not?

I don’t believe they think it does. The authors are critical of promoting conversion: “We demand that newcomers proclaim their loyalty to the Jewish people before they understand what either “Jewish” or “people” might really mean to them or have the chance to explore Judaism without pressure or expectation.” (p. 135) Moreover, requiring conversion for inclusion would be inconsistent with the authors’ conclusions: “If our purpose is to inspire Jewish life and people to embrace Jewish wisdom anew, whether or not they seek permanent membership in our people… We must prioritize finding the purposes that unite people in doing Jewish and in encountering Judaism as a verb rather than a noun.” (p .120-21) “Realizing the full potential of this pivotal time … will push us to move beyond a singular focus on peoplehood…” (p. 134) I would have liked to see a clear statement to the effect that conversion is a wonderful personal choice, but should not be required for inclusion.

Finally, some observations:

  • I wish the Reform movement currently was focusing on “actively positioning itself for outreach to the religiously unaffiliated” as the authors state (p. 24) – but sadly I don’t believe that it is prioritizing that effort.
  • I was pleased to see the authors say (p. 91) that Honeymoon Israel focuses on intermarried couples – something that the organization itself has not highlighted in the past.
  • I was pleased to see 18Doors included among the organizations welcoming in “those who might languish along the periphery.” (p. 93-4) In a footnote, the authors say that “18Doors is its current name, but the same organization has remained in continual operation since 1998.” I was surprised that they didn’t identify 18Doors’ prior name, InterfaithFamily (which actually started operating as an independent organization in 2002).
  • I was puzzled that the authors quote Jack Wertheimer and Jonathan Sarna favorably, and acknowledge their help with the manuscript, given that they are critical of scholars whose reaction to the intermarriage rates in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study was to view American Judaism as a sinking ship. (p. 120) – scholars who include Wertheimer and Sarna, who still speak of intermarriage in extremely negative terms.

What Local Community Studies Tell Us About Interfaith Family Inclusion

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Seven years ago, the Pew Report found that 72% of non-Orthodox Jews were intermarrying. One of its many other findings – that while 89% of intermarried Jews were proud to be Jewish, only 59% had a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (51-2) – raises the question whether interfaith couples feel welcomed and included in Jewish communities.

Since the Pew Report, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University has conducted four studies of interfaith couples and eleven local Jewish community studies, analyzed by the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism in a recent paper. What surfaces repeatedly in both bodies of research is the feeling of being “other” that people in interfaith relationships say they experience. We believe that the impact and extent of that feeling of being “other” explains the Pew Report’s finding that interfaith families do not feel that they belong to the Jewish people, and points the way to what needs to be done to engage them.

Studies of Interfaith Families

The 2019 Beyond Welcoming: Engaging Intermarried Couples in Jewish Life study stated “we have succeeded in making intermarried families feel welcome,” and that “barriers to engagement with Jewish life have been largely eliminated.” These statements were premature declarations of victory, in part because of the study’s own statement that interfaith couples who did not feel completely welcome “emphasized their feelings of being ‘other’ and not fitting in.” (42)

The Swimming Upstream: Interfaith Families in Toronto study, released in August 2020 and largely unnoticed in the midst of the COVID pandemic, is inconsistent with the declaration of success at welcoming. It states that “Couples felt unwelcome when interfaith relationships were denigrated, when the non-Jewish partner felt pressure to convert, or when they were expected to negate or hide the non-Jewish partner’s religious identity.” (1) It repeatedly describes interfaith couples’ feelings with words like “outcasts,” “outsider,” “inferior option” and “undesirable” (emphasis added):

[T]o be accepted as part of a community with families like ours would be nice for us. We feel like outcasts sometimes. (Non-Jewish partner, survey) (14)

One partner often feels like an outsider, so it’s difficult to prioritize events/feel comfortable attending. (Jewish partner, survey) (33)

“[T]he desire to be seen in a positive light and not denigrated as an inferior option, inherently less Jewish, or dysfunctional” was what they most wished the Jewish community understood about them. (28)

Couples fear some Jewish institutions will view them and their families as undesirable or unfortunate. (41)

While the tone of the two other studies of interfaith couples, in Boston and Pittsburgh, are generally more positive about the interfaith couples’ experiences, still in Boston, in some cases, “despite the initial welcome by a congregation, couples felt an undercurrent of disapproval or being treated as outsiders rather than as integral and valued members of the community” (17) and in Pittsburgh, some non-Jewish partners worried that their acceptance might be conditional or superficial and were concerned that they or their children were thought of differently or more negatively than inmarried couples and their children (12)

The Toronto study finds that “Many interfaith couples indicated they felt pressure from family, friends, and religious leaders for the non-Jewish partner to convert to Judaism.” In Toronto and in Pittsburgh (12), expectations about conversion felt unwelcoming, judgmental and intrusive.

I wish that the Jewish community didn’t put so much emphasis on having a Jewish spouse or partner. I find it highly offensive when my husband’s siblings speak about not accepting if their children were to date someone who wasn’t Jewish. It is offensive to myself and my daughter and really turns me off of the religion. (Non-Jewish partner,Toronto survey) (28)

Families are perceived to be more welcoming than community organizations. In Toronto, “Non-Jewish partners especially appreciated welcoming messages and actions that made them feel they belonged in their new extended families.”

When I first met [Jewish partner’s] parents, it felt like I was kind of already part of the family. I wasn’t the outcast. They’re very welcoming and very friendly. (Non-Jewish partner, interview) (30)

Feeling welcomed in families but not in Jewish organizations may explain why 89% of Toronto surveyed couples engaged in some celebration of the High Holidays, but 76% did not attend services, celebrating instead in home settings with family or friends. (13)

Local Community Studies

A. Interfaith Families Connection to Jewish Community

In the Twin Cities, as one example, 48% of intermarrieds feel not connected to either online or local community, compared to 8% of inmarrieds. (52) The following average data from the local community studies suggest that interfaith families do not experience being welcomed or made to feel part of Jewish communities:

  • Fewer intermarried (25%) than inmarried (54%) respondents said that being Jewish is very much a matter of community. Fewer intermarried (57%) than inmarried (89%) respondents said that being part of a Jewish community is important or essential to what being Jewish means to them.
  • Fewer intermarried (5%) than inmarried (28%) people say that they feel very much of a connection with or very much like a part of their local Jewish community.
  • Fewer intermarrieds (18%) than inmarrieds (43%) said they feel very much connected to Israel, a traditional measure of feeling part of the Jewish people.

B. Welcoming

People in interfaith relationships generally found their local Jewish organizations and community less welcoming than inmarrieds did. Six of the studies explicitly asked how welcoming the local Jewish community was to interfaith families; 54% of intermarrieds, compared to 69% of inmarrieds, said their local Jewish community was a little/somewhat or very much welcoming; more intermarrieds (42%) than inmarrieds (25%) said they had no opinion.

In Boston, for one example, 20% of intermarrieds compared to 8% of inmarrieds said that not welcoming was a reason they did not give their children Jewish education (TA 42). In Baltimore, as another example, only 15% of intermarrieds very much agreed that local Jewish organizations were welcoming to “people like you,” compared to 46% of inmarrieds. (TA (Technical Appendices) 121) The executive summary of the Baltimore study bluntly states: “Households that include an intermarried couple tend to feel that the community is not welcoming to them, does not care about them, and does not support them.” (3)

C. What Interfaith Families Say About Welcoming and Inclusion

Several local community studies invited comments about what prevented people in interfaith relationships from participating in Jewish life. In Baltimore (82) some interfaith families “felt unwelcomed in Jewish spaces, or feared they would be, because of who they are – in some cases, this belief was a result of direct experience and in others, it was an assumption.”

My wife is not Jewish, so my children are not Jewish according to Halacha, even though I am teaching them about Jewish culture. I feel like my family and I may not be accepted by the Jewish community.

As the non-Jewish spouse in a Jewish family, I am worried I won’t be accepted and have felt that way in some Jewish events in the course of my relationship with my husband. (84)

In the Twin Cities, despite a general feeling that the community is supportive of their needs, “some members of interfaith families, expressed their struggles with feeling accepted and welcomed.”

A major gap is making interfaith families feel welcome, especially the non-Jewish partner. This keeps us from being more involved when one person doesn’t feel welcome. (120)

In Pittsburgh, interfaith families felt that the community could do more to make them feel welcome.

We have a mix of religions in our home, though in practice we only practice Judaism. We found that we were not always welcomed or respected at [our area] congregations. Even Reform ones. (90)

In Washington, some interfaith families reported ways that the community made them feel unwelcome. One said,

As someone from an interfaith household, it’s hard to engage with the community if I have to convince my spouse, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll feel comfortable and welcome.’ She often feels like the Jewish community is insular and skeptical of non-Jews, and that makes it hard for me to find ways to engage in the community as well. (93)

Dual Faith Families

Data from the local community studies show that 15% of the children of intermarried parents are being raised Jewish and another religion. In the Twin Cities local community study (24) and the Boston study of interfaith families (17-8), some couples expressed concern about not being fully accepted if they decided to raise their child in two religions, or include both religions in their home life and in their identification of themselves as a family. One Boston respondent said:

There are some resources that say that they’re open to interfaith couples… But, it’s framed as for folks wanting to build a Jewish home … What I hear about interfaith [is]couples where one person is Jewish, and a Jewish community accepts that because they’re going to raise their kids Jewish. We are going to raise our kids Jewish, but we’re also gonna raise them actively something else… I feel anxious about finding those resources that don’t want me to be a kind of blank… I’m not a ‘nothing’ religiously. (Non-Jewish partner) (17-8)

What Can Be Done

The local community studies typically end with recommendations for future action. The Pittsburgh study clearly states the two main lines of efforts needed to engage interfaith families:

If the community can increase its outreach to intermarried families to make them feel more a part of the community, and if the community can offer them programs that stimulate their interests and meet their needs, there may be a significant opportunity to increase their Jewish engagement and encourage their children to develop their Jewish identities. (90)

There is a great deal of data and comment in the Cohen Center’s research that supports the view that people in interfaith relationships feel less welcomed and less a “part of” than inmarried people do. What a significant segment of people in interfaith relationships say, demonstrates a persistent feeling of being “other.”

Some of their comments point the way forward. One from the Boston study of interfaith families highlights the difference between feeling welcomed as a guest and included as part of the community: “Some couples recounted being regularly welcomed when they attended activities at a synagogue but never really progressing to feel like they belonged in the community.” (17)

Inclusion requires treating partners from different faith backgrounds as equals, like the Jewish partner’s Toronto family who treat the partner from a different faith background “as if I’m Jewish” (31), or the congregation in Boston where both partners are “treated very equally as members of the community” and are “both equally members of the congregation and that is really, really important to the fact that we feel at home here.” (16)

Who’s More Inclusive: Emerging or Legacy Spiritual Communities?

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When I ran InterfaithFamily (now 18Doors), a prominent philanthropist told me more than once that engaging interfaith families was an issue that would “take care of itself over time” because “young people are inclusive.” I was skeptical, but had no way to test or even shed light on the hypothesis – until now.

The Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism (CFRIJ) recently completed a Survey on Emerging Spiritual Communities’ Interfaith Inclusion Policies and Practices, modeled on the Center’s 2019 Survey on Reform Synagogue Interfaith Inclusion Policies and Practices (to which just under 50% of Reform congregations responded). Adopting the terminology of start-ups compared to “legacy” institutions, comparisons to the Reform survey results can provide some insight into the relative inclusiveness of emerging and legacy spiritual communities.

With much-appreciated help from the Jewish Emergent Network, the Open Dor ProjectKenissa: Communities of Meaning Network, the Upstart Network, and Base and Base Hillels, the Center compiled a list and invited 72 emerging spiritual communities to take the survey; 44, or 61%, responded. While they range from well-established, with years of operation and hundreds of participants, to very new start-ups, common elements include being led by a rabbi, cantor, kohenet or other spiritual leader; gathering to celebrate Shabbat and holidays and lifecycle events; perhaps offering worship services, education programs, and mentoring; and developing relationships and building community in a Jewish context.

Interpretation of the significance of data from these surveys depends to a large extent on one’s perspective with respect to inclusion of interfaith families. The same data can be presented in ways that emphasize permission or restriction; for example, 40% of communities permit X, or, 60% of communities do not permit X. In turn, whether or not it is appropriate or advisable to permit or not permit X depends on one’s fundamental views: about Judaism – whether it is a system for those who are Jewish or also those who do Jewish; about the relative importance of maintaining boundaries, on the one hand, and engaging interfaith families in Jewish life, on the other; and about whether restriction or permission will lead to interfaith family engagement. Admittedly, I come from a maximalist inclusion perspective, believing that permission, lowering boundaries, and encouraging anyone who want to, to do Jewish – in other words, treating Jews and their partners equally – leads to the engagement of interfaith families that is badly needed.

With respect to membership and leadership – whether partners from different faith backgrounds count as voting members and can hold leadership positions – the emerging spiritual communities are somewhat more inclusive than Reform synagogues: 84% consider them as voting members, compared to Reform’s 79%; 80% permit them to be board members and 76% to be officers, compared to Reform’s 40% and 27%.

With respect to wedding officiation, they are very close: 74% of emerging community clergy will officiate for interfaith couples, compared to 88% of Reform rabbis, while 29% will co-officiate, compared to 22% of Reform rabbis.

With respect to ritual participation, 68% of emerging spiritual communities allow members from a different faith background to lead candle lighting, while 32% do not; the data for Reform synagogues are identical.

We added several new questions to the recent survey and found these measures of inclusive policies and practices:

  • 70% of emerging spiritual communities recognize patrilineal Jews as Jews for all purposes, 23% as Jews for some but not all purposes, and only 7% not recognizing them as Jews.
  • 80%+ of communities in which baby namings and britot take place fully include parents and relatives from different faith backgrounds, and 90%+ of rabbis/spiritual leaders will officiate at funerals and conduct shiva minyans for them.
  • 82% of communities allow children who are receiving formal religious education in another religion to participate in their education programs.

The response to one new question in the recent survey was meant to test whether the communities mean to treat Jews and their partners equally: 64% said they do not draw any distinctions in terms of leadership and governance, ritual participation, or otherwise, between Jews and partners from different faith backgrounds. That is a heartening statistic from a maximalist inclusion perspective.

However, the “acid test” of interfaith family inclusiveness is whether parents from different faith backgrounds are allowed to have – by themselves – an Aliyah at their childrens’ b’nai mitzvot. The survey found that only 41% of communities allow parents from different faith backgrounds to do so. That’s not consistent with 64% of communities saying that they draw no distinctions.

Unfortunately, the Reform survey did not specifically ask about parents from different faith backgrounds having an Aliyah by themselves, so that comparison can’t be made. But the surveys do show that 79% of emerging spiritual communities and 70% of Reform synagogues allow parents from different faith backgrounds to join with Jewish parents in having an Aliyah.

Finally, the emerging spiritual communities are similar to Reform synagogues in one other way: they are not publicizing their policies and practices with regard to interfaith families on their websites – 5% do, compared to 18% of Reform.

The bottom line from my perspective: there’s not a large difference in the interfaith inclusion policies and practices of emerging spiritual communities and Reform congregations. They appear to be more inclusive in terms of leadership positions, and not constrained by a policy against dual education, but their practices on ritual participation are largely the same. It’s too soon to say that the young people are creating communities that are more inclusive than their elders’.

There are positive signs, however. Open-ended responses in the recent survey suggest a pragmatically inclusive approach that all emerging and legacy communities might follow: allowing members from different faith backgrounds who are “mission-aligned and see themselves as wanting to build meaningful Jewish community” to serve in leadership positions; not asking families whether their children are being educated in another religion, but making “it clear that our programs are grounded in Jewish tradition and open to all who are interested;” and allowing parents and relatives from different faith backgrounds to have an Aliyah where the family can “ensure that the relatives know the prayer and want to say it with sincerity.”

We Still Don’t Include Interfaith Families

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[This op-ed was submitted to the Forward, which published an edited version, Our Continued Rejection of Interfaith Families Hurts Everyone, December 21, 2020.]

Seven years ago, the Pew Report’s finding that 72% of non-Orthodox Jews were intermarrying rocked the Jewish world. The Pew Report did not examine why interfaith couples are relatively less Jewishly engaged on traditional measures of Jewish attitudes and behaviors, but provided one tantalizing clue: while 89% of intermarried Jews were proud to be Jewish, only 59% had a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. (at 51-2)

It is plain common sense that people will not feel that they belong to a group that makes them feel like outsiders and undesirable. Now, as 2020 ends, that common sense is supported by research.

In August 2020, the executive summary of the latest local Jewish community study by the Cohen Center states starkly (at 3) that in Baltimore, “Households that include an intermarried couple tend to feel that the community is not welcoming to them, does not care about them, and does not support them.” Equally stark, the executive summary of the latest study of interfaith couples by the Cohen Center states (at 1) that in Toronto, while it was important to most of the interfaith couples surveyed that their family have a place within the Jewish community, couples felt unwelcome when interfaith relationships were denigrated, when the non-Jewish partner from a different faith background felt pressure to convert, or when they were expected to negate or hide that partner’s religious identity.

These recent conclusions are consistent with seven years of data from eleven local community studies and four studies of interfaith couples conducted by the Cohen Center since the Pew Report, according to a new paper by the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism. That we still do not include interfaith families is indicated, as just one example, by the fact that the average of eleven local communities’ data shows that 5% of intermarrieds, compared to 28% of inmarrieds, feel very much of a connection with or very much like a part of their local Jewish community.

What is most striking in these studies is interfaith couples’ consistent and repeated use of terms like “outcasts,” “outsider,” “inferior option” and “undesirable” to describe how they are made to feel in Jewish communities. To feel included, they want to be treated as if they are Jewish, which means, as one said, “treated very equally as members of the community.”

The early reaction to the Pew Report included a group of two dozen “concerned Jews” proposing in 2014 to take action to counter a “disturbing trend” and promote inmarriage, and a  2015 Statement on Jewish Vitality that touted programs for raising the inmarriage rate and advocated for conversion to transform intermarriages into inmarriages. The message from Jewish leaders to interfaith couples was that their relationships were something to be prevented, and partners from different faith backgrounds could be included if they converted, but not as they were.

Sadly, these messages are surfacing again. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, emeritus CEO of the United Synagogue, emerged to say that “It’s time for the Jewish community to make a big push for Jews marrying Jews.” The Cohen Center released a study of the impact of Birthright Israel that “emphasizes the news that participants are much more likely to have a Jewish spouse or partner,” in the words of one Birthright lay leader. Len Saxe is quoted as saying that they focused on marriage because it is a good indicator of attachment to Jewish identity. But they could have focused on trip participants being more likely to raise their children Jewish and otherwise engage in Jewish life.

Highlighting that participants are more likely to inmarry makes it appear that inmarriage is Birthright’s goal. Jewish communal leaders are tone deaf on this score, not getting that suggesting that inmarriage is the goal necessarily, unavoidably makes interfaith marriage the inferior option. Jonathan Tobin is just so wrong when he says that “It’s no insult to the intermarried to recognize that [speaking about endogamy] is absolutely vital to the Jewish future.” Prioritizing endogamy leaves the partner from a different faith background feeling undesirable and the Jewish partner feeling that their marriage is a failure. Thus, we still have interfaith families feeling like they don’t belong.

One bright light at the end of this difficult year is the nearly universal positive response to the interfaith relationship of Doug Emhoff and Kamala Harris, Rabbi Emily Cohen writing that “maybe now the Jewish community will be able to see such families as normal, sacred and essential.” But as Alicia Chandler’s article title succinctly says, We Can’t Kvell Over Kamala Harris’ Jewish Husband While We Demonize Interfaith Marriage. I can’t imagine Kamala Harris tolerating being considered an “inferior option” as a marriage partner. No partner from a different faith background should be made to feel that way in any liberal Jewish community.

My Experience as an Intermarried Rabbi

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Guest Post by Rabbi Ed Stafman

At 30 years old, I married my wife – the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. I considered myself an atheist and secular Jew. Because religion was unimportant to me, it had little bearing on who I would marry. My family put no pressure on me about my intention to marry the woman who would become my wife.

At age 38, when our first child was turned five, I felt that she should have a Jewish education, despite the fact that I despised my own [Orthodox] Jewish childhood education. We lived in an overwhelmingly Christian city and with my wife’s family being so strongly connected to the church, my failure to give my daughter a Jewish education would likely have led to her becoming Christian by default, and that was unacceptable to me, although I didn’t understand why at the time. My wife was very gracious and supportive. So, we joined the local Reform synagogue and enrolled our daughter in the religious school there.

As time when on, we became more involved in the synagogue. I taught seventh grade religious school (I was able to read a week ahead of the kids!). The synagogue became a center of our social lives and a source of friends and community. I served on the Board for many years, eventually as President, attended URJ biennials, served on the URJ’s Social Action Commission, and the like. But Jewish spirituality was not a big part of the draw.

In my mid 40s, I serendipitously found myself at a Jewish Renewal spiritual retreat. I had found my spiritual home. For the next several years, I attended as many of these retreats as I could.  When I returned home, the first phone call I got was always from my wife’s mother, a [Christian] spiritual director, who wanted to know what happened and everything I learned.  As time went on, I began to meet rabbinic students and faculty of ALEPH’s Rabbinic program and became more and more drawn to Jewish learning and later, to perhaps ultimately becoming a rabbi.

When application time rolled around in 2000, Rabbi Marcia Prager, the Dean of the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, explained to me that the application process vis-à-vis intermarried students was holistic in its approach, and that while intermarriage was a factor, they look at the whole person, his/her circumstances, whether they would serve the Jewish community well as a rabbi, etc. She was very clear about one thing: it was highly unlikely that any congregation would hire an intermarried rabbi and she didn’t want me to harbor false hopes.  At the time, I wasn’t all that interested in becoming a congregational rabbi, so I was not bothered by this probable limitation.

I had considered other rabbinic programs at the time, but I was told by HUC, RRC, and Hebrew College that because I was intermarried, I could not be accepted, and I was not about to get divorced after 16 years of a good marriage or to be dishonest about it. While HUC and RRC did not explain their reasoning, Rabbi Art Green of Hebrew College Rabbinic School explained to me that their philosophy was out of concern for families that might be struggling with a child intermarrying and wanting them to work it out among themselves without the child being able to point to the rabbi and saying “the rabbi’s intermarried, why can’t I?”. I was persuaded by that argument at the time, but I suspect that, in the last 20 years, there are fewer and fewer families having those difficult conversations. Both of my children are in long term relationships, one with a Jew, one not. Should they decide to marry, I wouldn’t think of debating them about the religious status of their chosen partner.

In any event, I was accepted into the ALEPH program and spent the next eight years in it, part time at first. I was the third intermarried person in the program. (One had since been divorced and a couple more entered during my time, at least one of whom subsequently divorced). Throughout my time in the program, my commitment to living a Jewish life deepened significantly and it was not always easy being married to someone who did not share that driving force. However, my experience in that regard was not much different from colleagues who were married to secular Jews who did not want to be so Jewish! Along the way, there were several spouse support groups, mostly consisting of secular Jewish spouses, but my wife fit right in. None of the spouses thought they were marrying a rabbi all those years earlier and these second career decisions required adjustments and flexibility. Often overlooked by those thinking about intermarried rabbis is the impact on the marriage, where it is bound to pose challenges. Happily, we worked through the challenges, owing to my wife’s graciousness.  She joined me in many Jewish practices and events. I would later note that next to me, she knew the liturgy better than anyone else in the congregation. She attended services regularly, played the piano during services, and her Pesach brisket rivals any.  However, although she explored it, she determined that conversion wasn’t in the cards for her.

Along the rabbinic school path, I had a student pulpit, which changed my thinking about congregational work. In 2008, a few months before I was to be ordained, an ad came across the rabbi listserve, reading: “Outside Magazine Says Bozeman, MT is the #1 Place to Live in the U.S. and We’re Looking for a Rabbi. Any questions, call Josh at #######.” It looked like a great opportunity, but the caution of the Dean from eight years earlier was still ringing in my ears. I called Josh to inform him that I was considering applying, but that I wouldn’t waste everyone’s time if being intermarried was a dealbreaker. After consulting the search committee, he told me to go ahead and apply. I ended up being hired for a few months as a student rabbi while I awaited ordination, and then spent ten years serving that community, ultimately retiring and becoming rabbi emeritus two years ago. I later heard from search committee members that they thought that by calling Josh, I was trying to game the process and gain an advantage by letting them know ahead of time that I was intermarried so that they would look upon me more favorably, since they were 60+% intermarried!

During my tenure as rabbi, I’m not aware of any negative issue that ever arose because I was intermarried. I suspect there were a few whispers in the local Orthodox community, but they too were mostly intermarried families, so it wasn’t a major issue. Being intermarried had the advantage of giving me credibility with non-Jewish spouses when I told them how much they were welcome, and to talk about conversion in a way that they knew was non-judgmental.  It increased my credibility in the outside — and especially the interfaith — community, which in turn, lifted the congregation. In the progressive Jewish world where the role of Rebbetzin has all but been eliminated, people expect the rabbi’s wife to have her own identity.

At 66 years old and having lived this journey through rabbinic school and a ten year pulpit, with its trials, failures, and successes, I believe that Rabbi Marcia Prager was correct: the decision to admit an intermarried rabbinical student must be a holistic one. The ultimate question ought to be whether the applicant is somebody whose ordination will, on the whole, lift up, inspire, and advance the interests of the Jewish people, local Jewish communities, and individual Jews. Do we want to turn away those who would be good rabbis by those standards but who intermarried many years before and came to fall in love with Judaism later, simply because his/her spouse declines to convert? In this world of evolving Jewish life, there are many factors to consider and, in my opinion, no one factor should be wholly determinative. How long has the person been married? How strong is the marriage? What are the non-Jewish spouse’s thoughts, concerns, feelings, and what will his/her role in the rabbi’s professional life look like? Is the spouse actively practicing another religion, which could pose a more significant problem? What kind of work does the applicant want to do? If congregational work is the calling, does s/he want a small more rural congregation where most people are intermarried or a congregation in a large Jewish metro area that might have different expectations? How will the applicant and his/her spouse deal with the personal and communal challenges that arise? It’s important to consider that many of these same questions can be asked of an applicant married to a secular/uninvolved Jew, who will often face the same challenges. If we are going to tell spouses of interfaith families that they are welcome in our congregations, it seems hypocritical to say that intermarriage automatically disqualifies an otherwise committed rabbinic applicant.

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After some 25 years of law practice, Ed Stafman spent eight years in the ALEPH Rabbinic program. After ordination, he served as Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, MT for ten years, where he is now Rabbi Emeritus. He is a past president of OHALAH, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. He was elected to the Montana House of Representatives, District 62, in the November 2020 election.

Seminary Admissions: Modern-day Discrimination

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GUEST POST BY SUSAN RIZZO

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a dentist.  Why?  My dad’s best friend was a pediatric dentist.  He had a cool office with ceiling-mounted television screens above each chair and video arcade consoles in his waiting room.  I figured there couldn’t be a better job!  Here I am in my 40s, having long ago chosen education over dentistry, and now ready for a career change (preferably one that doesn’t involve my putting my hands in another’s mouth).  Since being nominated to participate in the Wexner Heritage Program last year, I am very interested in helping shape the Jewish future.

Life-long Reform Jew that I am, I started with the website of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the movement’s main seminary, to learn what it takes to become ordained.  I learned there about the “extraordinary five-year journey” which promised to “expand my intellectual curiosity, nurture my search for spiritual meaning, and fulfill my aspirations to implement tikkun olam, the healing of the world.”  Apart from some issues of practicality (distance, expense, etc.), I am ready to be signed up for what sounded like the adventure and career of a lifetime!

The (non-exhaustive) list of program requirements for HUC-JIR seminary programs includes:  Bachelor’s degree.  Check!  GPA of 3.0 or higher.  Check!  Year of college-level Modern Hebrew.  Check!  Readiness for graduate school.  Check!  (I’m going to assume completion of two prior master’s degrees constitutes readiness.)  Commitment to and leadership experience within Reform Judaism and K’lal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood).  Check and check!  Ability to think analytically and express oneself clearly in speech and writing.  (I’ll let you be the judge.)

Wow, I could be a rabbi or cantor!  Except, no.  “Current policy states that applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program.”  That’s right, my most amazing partner of nearly 18 years, with whom I have raised a Jewish family for more than a dozen, is not himself Jewish.  Apparently, that’s enough to disqualify me from applying to an HUC-JIR rabbinic or cantorial program. Not only does this seem counter to the values espoused by Reform Judaism, but per their website, HUC-JIR “does not discriminate on the basis of disability, race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, genetic information, marital status, sex, age, sexual orientation, veteran status or gender identity and expression” (all emphases added).

I decided to invite HUC-JIR to help me see how precluding my candidacy based on the religion/ancestry of my spouse does not violate their own equal opportunity and non-discrimination policies.  Emails to Cantorial, Admissions and finally the Equal Opportunity Coordinator resulted in my having a phone conversation with the Associate Director of Recruitment and Admissions, who suggested that a policy change might be on the horizon.  That was late 2018.  As recently as last month, no change had yet been implemented, so I reached out again – this time to the new HUC-JIR president.  He thanked me for my feedback, conceded that others have expressed similar concerns, and assured me of the school’s on-going commitment to religious pluralism.  He also pointed out that rabbis and cantors serve as exemplars to the Jewish community and, therefore, have to be held to high personal standards.

I do hold myself to high standards, both personally and professionally.  Does my having intermarried somehow mean I can’t be a model for the Jewish community?  I reject that premise, both because it offends and because it really does not seem grounded in the present reality.  Has anyone noticed how many self-identified Reform Jews intermarry?  A LOT!  Do we not think congregants deserve to be led by a reflection of themselves?  The implication seems to be that my having intermarried means my having not chosen a Jewish life, but clearly that’s not true.  Not only was I chosen by my temple’s clergy to participate in the Wexner Heritage Program; I am presently matriculated in the Spertus Institute Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program; I serve on four committees at my temple, including one I chair; I sing in various temple choirs and am right now co-constructing our temple’s first summer lay-led service; our two children are enrolled in our temple’s religious school and will become b’nai mitzvah next year.  Yet somehow none of that “counts” because having intermarried makes me an unfit model?

Shockingly, HUC-JIR isn’t the only non-Orthodox seminary that won’t admit intermarried candidates.  One self-ascribed “pluralistic” seminary I recently talked to “reassured” me that my husband “would likely convert, knowing how important it was to me.”  That’s not the point – he shouldn’t have to!  My husband’s religion (it happens he only practices Judaism, even though he never converted) has zero bearing on whether I’d make a good rabbi or cantor. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College seems to know this; they decided to admit and ordain intermarried candidates in 2015.  It’s time the Reform movement, which I’ve called home since birth, caught up!

At the end of the day, discriminating against intermarried Jews violates Reform Judaism’s proclaimed emphasis on liberalism and evolution.  A half-century after the rabbinate opened to women, it’s time it opened to all Jews, regardless of race, sexuality, gender identity, or marital status.  It’s time that the Jews in the pews see ourselves reflected more fully on the bimah and that we stop being intermarriage “shamed.”

* * *

Susan Rizzo is a life-long member of Reform synagogues, including most recently Temple Sinai in Rochester, New York, where her family have been active members since 2012.  Her husband is not Jewish but participates extensively in temple life.  Their two sons have recently begun training for their 2021 joint b’nai mitzvah.

Will Our Post-Corona Vision Include Engaged Interfaith Families?

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[This essay originally appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy and is reprinted with permission.]

As any regular consumer of Jewish media in general – and eJewishPhilanthropy essays in particular – knows, there is an ongoing extensive discussion about the massive disruptions caused by the Coronavirus pandemic and the opportunity to re-envision the Jewish community.

Strikingly missing to date from that discussion has been any mention of a goal to increase the engagement of interfaith families in that post-pandemic community.

The leaders of organizations working with Jewish professionals, reporting on what they hear from the field, most recently identified a concern among Jewish non-profit CEOs that initiatives around inclusion not be deprioritized, as well as their interest in having the full diversity of the community considered. But the only marginalized groups mentioned are Jews of color and multiracial members of our community.

Regrettably, it is necessary to ask Jewish leaders at this time: Are interfaith families part of the diversity of the community that we want to be included?

Thought leaders, including Sid Schwarz, Steven Windmueller and Cindy Chazan,  have noted the huge production of Jewish content available online in response to the pandemic. But aside from ongoing efforts by 18Doors, no extensive content or experiences have been developed with interfaith families in mind – with any focus either on making content accessible to them, or marketing to them in targeted ways.

This is an opportunity that could be seized after the pandemic ends that could lead to engaging many more interfaith families.

Thought leaders have also noted that the fear and isolation stemming from the pandemic have generated increased interest in spiritual community. The Pew Research Center reports that many Americans, though fewer Jews than other groups, say their faith has become stronger.  There is reason to believe that partners from different faith backgrounds are likely to be even more interested in spiritual expression than their Jewish partners.

This is another opportunity – to make Jewish spiritual community attractive to and accessible by, that is, inclusive of, the partners from different faith backgrounds in interfaith relationships. Will that be part of our re-envisioned “New Normal”?

I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that there are not very pressing immediate concerns around health, people in need, the survival of organizations and job security for their professionals, and more. But thought leaders are calling for planning, starting now, for the future, and for thinking expansively about making Jewish life and communities compelling when the pandemic is over.

One thing that has not changed and must be taken into account in that expansive thinking: given a 72% rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews, no form of liberal Jewish activity can thrive in the future unless increasing numbers of interfaith families engage in it.

There is much that can be learned, from the current discussion of the disruptions and opportunities arising from the pandemic, about how to engage interfaith families, in addition to the importance of providing targeted online content and capitalizing on revived interest in spiritual community. The lesson about mutual trust that Cyd Weissman draws from the pandemic provides important guidance on how feelings of inclusion can be cultivated among interfaith families. Weissman says that if we develop relationships in which we demonstrate trust in people, by cultivating their needs, voices and creativity, they will trust us. I say that if we consider and treat partners from different faith traditions as equals, we can demonstrate trust in them and cultivate their needs, and, as I’ve argued before, make them feel that they belong in Jewish communities.

As Jewish leaders – including the private family foundations widely recognized as the “power brokers” in formulating the response to the pandemic – move forward with the planning that will inevitably happen, I urge them to prioritize changing the trajectory of efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly.