My Irish Vacation

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July 2000

I’ve been an intermarried Jew for twenty-five years. When my wife Wendy was a junior in college, younger than our daughter is now, she spent the summer traveling in Europe, including a visit with her mother’s first cousin, Rhona Williams, in County Tipperary, Ireland. One of our favorite pictures is of Wendy (in a very short skirt) standing at a stone fence next to her second cousin Jeremy, who was then about six and looked very much like a little leprechaun.

A few years ago Jeremy came to visit us for a week, now quite grown up and with his wife Liz. We’ve kept in touch with him by e-mail and occasional “snail” mail, which usually now includes beautiful pictures (he’s a professional photographer) of his children Sophie and Ross.

Last summer Wendy and I went on a bicycle trip in County Galway and the Connemara coast. When I travel, I always look in the yellow pages of the telephone book, just out of curiosity, to see if there are any synagogues. Similarly, when I go into bookstores, I usually look at the religion section to see what kind of Jewish books are available. Galway is a small city with a major university, but there was no sign of a Jewish community, and there weren’t any Jewish books in the stores. I did see someone, undoubtedly an American tourist, with a “Young Judea” t-shirt, but that was about the extent of the Jewish presence, as far as I could tell. This didn’t make me uncomfortable at all, it’s just something that I noticed.

When our bicycle trip ended, we rented a car, set out driving on the left on narrow country lanes, and visited Rhona. Now in her seventies, she lives in a white-washed cottage with beautiful gardens, but quite modest inside, in a very rural area. There were about ten houses in her village, surrounded by large fields filled with cows and sheep. She is quite an engaging character, and treated us with great hospitality. Several of her children and grandchildren came to visit us, and we got to be good friends in our short stay.

I was struck by how connected Rhona was to her various communities. Her village was in the midst of a beautification program, which involved installing posts on which to hang baskets of flowers, and she was very actively working with her neighbors on that project. Rhona had recently lost a brother, and she had many visitors while we were there who expressed sympathy and offered her assistance. But the community she seemed most connected to was her Protestant church, where she is on the vestry, and also is the organist. So, on the Sunday of our visit, off we went to services at the Church of Ireland in Templemore.

I can’t remember the last time that Wendy or I were at a church service; it could be more than fifteen years. We are both very active in our synagogue and I am interested in how religious institutions are organized, so I was eagerly looking forward to this experience. We arrived early because Rhona helps set things up for the service, and she introduced us to the other early arrivers, who were all very friendly. There were only about thirty people present, because many of the “regulars” were attending a christening that was going on in a neighboring church. Wendy and I sat down about two-thirds of the way back, and I thought there wasn’t anyone seated behind us.

As I listened carefully to the service, I looked particularly for a prayer that I would be comfortable saying, but I didn’t find a single one. Every prayer and every hymn referred explicitly to Jesus, which made it impossible for me to join in. There was one hymn that did not refer to Jesus by name, but the implication was so clear that I couldn’t say the words.

During the service, communion was given. It looked as though every person in the church, other than Wendy and me, went forward to take communion. When all of those people were done, the minister and his assistant started walking down the aisle with the communion objects. I didn’t think there was anyone seated behind us and couldn’t understand why they were coming down the aisle, apparently towards me. Were they coming to offer me communion? I was feeling very uncomfortable–until the minister passed by our row, on his way to give communion to an elderly parishioner who was, in fact, seated behind us. Then I could laugh at the passing paranoia that I had experienced.

All it all, I had a great time in Ireland. The bicycle trip took us through beautiful scenery, but most of all I enjoyed meeting my Irish cousins. I really respect the strength of community that my cousin Rhona finds in her church, although I do wish that I had been able to join in some part of the service we attended. I’ve always thought, or perhaps hoped, that the liturgy of Jewish religious services is universalistic enough so that there are Jewish prayers that people who are not Jewish could feel comfortable saying. Although the frequent references in Jewish prayer to the people of Israel could be off-putting to non-Jews, I’ve thought that the references to God in Jewish prayer are general and not inconsistent with the theologies of other religions. But my experience in Ireland reminded me how important it is for non-Jews in interfaith families to be able to join in Jewish religious services.

Why Non-Jewish Spouses Sometimes Think That Jews Are Weird

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June 2000

My non-Jewish wife of twenty-five years, the co-chair of the synagogue Social Action committee, regular Shabbat, Sabbath, service-goer, after a recent discussion with me announced that “Jews are weird.” She had good reason to say so.

Wendy was looking for a speaker for the Social Action Shabbat, and someone had suggested a Christian clergy person who had founded an organization that promoted faith-based social justice efforts. The fact that the proposed speaker was a Christian, even a Christian clergy person, wasn’t a problem–we’ve had several Social Action Shabbat speakers like that in the past. But this one had a Jewish sounding name and had converted from Judaism to Christianity.

By the time Wendy asked me what I thought, I had already shivered. I’ll admit it, the notion of a Jew converting “out” makes me very uncomfortable. Wendy had already discussed this with the Jewish co-chair of the committee, who had the same reaction as I did. Wendy thought this person would make a great speaker and couldn’t understand the reactions she was getting.

I explained what Wendy already knew–that Jews have historically experienced persecution; that the Spanish Inquisition involved the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity; that many Jews who were raised like I was were likely to have the same uncomfortable reaction when confronted with a Jew who had converted “out.” Wendy already knew all of this–but it wasn’t the first thing she thought of, which is one of the differences between us.

We’ve been talking a lot recently about the boundaries in synagogues between Jews and non-Jews, and about conversion into Judaism. We each often encounter Jews who say that if a non-Jew wants to be active in the synagogue, why doesn’t he or she just convert?

Wendy has got a good point –isn’t it inconsistent to, on the one hand, recoil at the notion of a Jew converting “out,” but, on the other hand, be cavalier about the significance of a non-Jew’s decision to convert “in”?

Love Can Trump Tradition: Interfaith Relationships in Keeping the Faith

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May 2000

I really enjoyed the new movie, Keeping the Faith. In it, two best friends from childhood, a priest–played by Ed Norton (who also directed the film), and a rabbi–played by Ben Stiller, fall for Anna–played by Jenna Elfman–also a childhood friend who is now a high-powered business executive. As the story develops, amidst the humor, it treats serious themes in a surprisingly profound way. I especially appreciated the message about interfaith relationships, as Anna is not Jewish.

The priest and the rabbi are each young, new clergy at their respective church and synagogue. They dress and act in a very “hip” way and work hard to enliven their respective worship services. I liked what the priest said in a sermon early in the movie about God being connections and faith being participating in worship as a way to experience those connections. Too often, we don’t talk about the nature of God in our worship experiences.

I also liked how the young rabbi stirred things up at his synagogue as a way to increase the congregation’s participation in the worship service, at one point bringing in a gospel choir to sing Ain Keloheinu as it has probably never been done before. I’d love to try that gospel version at my own synagogue. Worship renewal is a very hot topic in the Reform movement today; I didn’t expect to see such a “right on” treatment of the subject in this movie.

At one point Anna asks the priest how he lives with celibacy. I liked the priest’s answer, that it was part of the job, that he got used to it; it seemed to make sense to me, though I wonder how a person more experienced with Catholicism would react to the movie. The way the movie depicted the priest’s struggles with his vocation, including his talks with his mentor, seemed respectful and very believable. I thought the mentor’s comment that one can’t make a commitment without realizing that it involves an ongoing choice was another serious gem.

I didn’t like the way the rabbi initially approached his interfaith relationship with Anna. They were already having a sexual relationship, but he says he didn’t even think that they were “going out.” When Anna told him that she had been asked to transfer to San Francisco but was thinking of turning it down because she was in love with him, he reacts as if it had never occurred to him that that could be true. I felt that this was unrealistic, that they probably would have talked about Anna converting as a possible solution to his problem much earlier. But perhaps he was so certain that the relationship could not have a future that he didn’t even allow himself to think of conversion as an alternative.

A friend who saw the movie with us said that she guessed very early on, when Anna mentioned that she had a class that conflicted with another appointment, that Anna was attending conversion classes. While I don’t feel that conversion is required for all interfaith relationships to be successful, the fact that Anna was pursuing conversion seemed appropriate, even though she hadn’t talked about it with the man she loved and they hadn’t even talked about commitment with each other. Anna became serious about him before he allowed himself to become serious about her. She might have begun the classes not intending to convert but as a way of learning more about what was so important to him. And, for a congregational rabbi, conversion would probably be the only acceptable outcome for an interfaith relationship. Although I did wonder, since the rabbi in the movie appeared to be Conservative, whether Conservative congregations would tolerate one of their rabbis having an interfaith relationship, even if the non-Jew decided to convert.

I thought the Jewish family dynamics were generally portrayed in an accurate way. The rabbi’s older brother had intermarried, and the rabbi’s mother, played by Ann Bancroft, had not spoken to him for two years. Although that kind of cutting off seems increasingly rare these days, it did seem realistic to me that the mother had had a very hard time with her first son’s intermarriage. I liked her recognition that by cutting him off she had made a mistake, and her decision to encourage his younger brother, the rabbi, to follow his heart.

What I appreciated about the movie most of all was the recognition that love can “trump” tradition, that even a rabbi can fall in love with a non-Jew, and that doing so is not a rejection of Judaism. That was the most important message of the movie to me, and I think it was delivered in a sincere, serious, yet very funny way.

We Need a Religious Movement That Is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families

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March 2000

An important phenomenon is happening among intermarried Jewish parents. They increasingly define the religious identity of their family as Jewish. Yet the religious movements in the American Jewish community are failing to respond in an encouraging way to these families. Instead, they insist on promoting conversion and on maintaining boundaries and barriers to the inclusion of these families in Jewish religious life. As a result, they risk alienating, rather than supporting, intermarried parents who want to raise their children as Jews.

In many synagogues today, intermarried non-Jews are actively participating in raising their children as Jews, and many seek to have their religious and spiritual needs met in Judaism. The universal aspects of the Jewish religion are very appealing to them, as are the family-centered Shabbat–or Sabbath–and holiday observances, and Jewish ethical views. They do not practice any other religion. They attend Jewish religious services and feel comfortable joining in the prayer and song. They observe Shabbat and the holidays with their families. They supervise their children’s religious school education. They join in the synagogue’s other activities -social action, adult education, and more. They have chosen Judaism as the religion of their family. In discussions at my synagogue, one intermarried non-Jew recently said, “For a lot of us, this is the only place we worship, and we worship as a family here.” Another said, “I was raised Catholic. I came here because we can worship here and be a Jewish family here. We couldn’t have been a Christian family, but I could embrace much of what’s here. At many times I’ve felt part of the ‘us’ here.”

These people are living Jewishly themselves-without converting. Conversion rates in general are lower, the result of decreasing stigma surrounding intermarriage and decreasing parental and community pressure. Many are not willing to convert, for very personal reasons. Some are unwilling to cause hurt to their own parents who may feel a rejection of their identity. Others focus on the ethnic aspects of Judaism and believe that conversion would not make them feel part of the Jewish people defined as an ethnic group.

Despite these realities, the calls for promoting conversion are persistent and growing. The official position of the Conservative movement calls for opposition to intermarriage, followed by efforts to encourage conversion by the non-Jewish spouse if the efforts to oppose the intermarriage have failed. In the Fall 1999 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s article is sub-titled “Let Us Not Be Afraid To Ask Our Intermarried Members To Convert.” Gary Tobin’s 1999 book, Opening the Gates, likewise advocates for promoting conversion.

What is the likely reaction to these calls for conversion from the actively participating non-Jewish parents who are not willing to convert? Many feel that conversion is simply not important or necessary for them. As one said, “I was raised Catholic. My wife and I went through a painstaking process in deciding to raise our children as Jews. I didn’t want to convert, but would do what was necessary. I learned Hebrew, I joined the Brotherhood, to show my commitment and example. I think commitment through showing and doing is more important than conversion.” Another said, “Judaism can be adopted in a process without conversion, which is an act. Many people grow into the Jewish community. They adopt Judaism as their form of worship. People are on different points on a continuum, it’s hard to pinpoint where they are.”

It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a rabbi or a movement or a Jewish leader to call for conversion without conveying the message that those who do not convert are less valued, less worthy, deficient in important respects. Being made to feel different and unwelcome can hardly be conducive to the efforts of these parents to raise their children as Jews. As one parent said, “It’s not easy to find the way. It took us a long time. Feeling ‘part of’ has been really important. Our family grew up here, felt together here. Being ‘part of’ and included is the most important aspect of the temple for us.”

Many synagogues in the Reform movement are currently struggling to resolve questions surrounding the role of the non-Jew in ritual participation. Rabbi Yoffie wrote that “We all understand that those who have not converted cannot participate in certain rituals.” The issue comes to a head when non-Jewish parents wish to have an aliyah at their child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. At the Reform Movement’s December 1999 biennial convention in Orlando, the vast majority of rabbis asked about this issue were categorically opposed to allowing non-Jews to have an aliyah. How could a non-Jew recite a prayer that thanks God for choosing “us” and giving “us” the Torah? How could a non-Jew have the highest honor that a Jew can have, being called to the Torah?

There’s a simple answer – an intermarried non-Jew who has participated in raising a child as a Jew to the point of that child becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah could say, with complete integrity and authenticity, that his or her family is included among the “us” who were chosen and to whom the Torah was given. Moreover, such a parent arguably deserves the highest honor which the Jewish community can bestow. What can be harder for a parent to do than to give a child permission to have an identity different from that parent? Given the sacrifices involved, honor is exactly what these parents deserve.

Telling a non-Jewish parent that he or she cannot have an aliyah because he or she isn’t included in the “us” is destructive and counter-productive. Telling them that it’s fine for them to say the prayers in the pews, just not up on the bimah, or podium, receiving an honor reserved for Jews, isn’t logical or convincing. They are left questioning whether they can authentically say all of the many Jewish prayers that refer to “us.”

Intermarried non-Jews want to be accepted as they are. They want to be comfortable in the synagogue. They want to feel united with their Jewish spouse, not divided, not unequal. They don’t want the message given to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child at this critical life-cycle event to be that one of their parents isn’t allowed to participate and be honored fully. Instead of encouraging such people to live Jewishly, maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have an aliyah makes them feel excluded. “We are here because we thought we could pray together as a family. To say that my silence is mandated – even at the single moment of the aliyah – strikes at the reason why we are here.” “I would feel put out if I was told, no matter how committed I was, that I couldn’t participate fully. Do you mean to tell me that my Jewish brother-in-law, who is totally secular and whose only connection to Judaism is to have matzah ball soup at the seder at my house, could have an aliyah at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, and I couldn’t?” “I feel I’ve made a huge commitment in raising our children as Jews. Differentiation would feel punitive and exclusive. People need to understand what it would be like for the non-Jewish parent to be excluded at this moment despite all of the sacrifices he or she had made.”

The movements are stuck on their policies that maintain boundaries because their concept of Jewish peoplehood excludes unconverted non-Jewish spouses. But that concept could be broadened so as to include them. Non-Jews have always had a recognized place within the Jewish community. We could start thinking of the Jewish people as a broader Jewish community, made up of both Jews and their non-Jewish partners. The theoretical foundation for that concept lies in the Torah itself, which refers to them as gerim toshavim –“strangers in your camp,” or, in Everett Fox’s translation, “sojourners who sojourn with you.” Indeed, the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion in the Reform liturgy suggests that the sojourners were included among the people who entered into God’s covenant: “You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God… every one in Israel, men, women and children, and the sojourners who sojourn among you . . . to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day, in order to establish you henceforth as [a] people….” (Deut. 29:9-12). Elsewhere the Torah refers to kol adat b’nai yisrael — “the entire community of the children of Israel.” (Lev. 19:2)

The American Jewish community needs a religious movement that would allow intermarried and unconverted non-Jews to chose complete participation in Jewish life. In such a movement the Jewish people would mean a broader Jewish community made up of both Jews and the sojourners among us. Jews and sojourners could feel that Judaism is their religion, and that “member of the Jewish community” is their identity. This policy of “total inclusion” would eliminate the feelings of being different, and excluded, that inhibit their Jewish living and child raising. Instead, they would be encouraged and supported in their own Jewish living and their efforts to raise their children as Jews.

In such a movement, if a non-Jew were raising Jewish children, it would not make any difference whether or not that parent converts. Conversion would be an option for those who chose it, but parents would not be made to feel deficient, less welcome, or discouraged by too much emphasis on conversion. Interfaith families who had not even entered our doors would not stay away because they felt welcome only as potential converts. Those who have not and may never convert would get the message that they were welcomed and accepted just as they are. Active unconverted non-Jewish spouses would be allowed to choose to participate in all of our rituals. They would be considered part of the “us” entitled to join in our prayers. Feeling included would advance and reinforce their efforts to live Jewishly and raise Jewish children, which should be the community’s primary goal.

Rabbi Carl Perkins’ response: Let Us Respect People for Who They Are: A Response to Ed Case
April 2000

It is difficult to object to Ed Case’s call for a religious movement that is “totally inclusive of intermarried Jewish families.” It seems just, reasonable and appealing, and it is clearly well meaning.

And yet, there are pieces of Ed’s argument that just don’t hold together. So although I agree with Ed’s overall objective of helping the Jewish community be open and welcoming, I would like to raise a few objections to his proposal.

Ed’s thesis, as I understand it, has two parts. The first is that non-Jews who are married to Jews and raising Jewish children should be appreciated and treated with great respect by the Jewish community. I agree. After all, they are playing a vital–and difficult –role in helping to maintain Jewish life. In some cases, this comes at great personal sacrifice, for they may be suppressing aspects of their own faith or their own religious identity. I applaud Ed’s efforts to raise awareness within the Jewish community of the need to reach out and to extend a welcome. All of us must join in helping fellow travelers among us feel at home.

And yet Ed goes further than this. Ed argues that non-Jews who are married to Jews and raising Jewish children should be considered full members of the Jewish people. This is the part that puzzles me. It isn’t as if the individuals who are the focus of Ed’s attention are unaware of the possibility of becoming Jewish. On the contrary, we are asked to assume that they have considered, and rejected, conversion to Judaism. The reasons, Ed suggests, could be personal: “Some are unwilling to cause hurt to their own parents who may feel a rejection of their identity. Others focus on the ethnic aspects of Judaism and believe that conversion would not make them feel part of the Jewish people defined as an ethnic group.” For whatever reason, these are folks who, according to Ed, are not ready to convert. They may ultimately be [ready to convert], but as of now, they are, by their own admission, not ready to become full members of the Jewish people–and they don’t consider themselves to be.

Ed, it seems to me, is asking us to ignore that fact. These are folks who for significant reasons have refrained from pursuing the obvious path to becoming full members of the Jewish people. And yet Ed is asking us to pretend that they haven’t made that choice.

I fail to see how that is respectful of these individuals and their integrity, maturity and sense of self. What permits us to disregard and devalue their inhibitions, their reservations, their self-definition as “not yet” Jewish? Should we ignore their hesitation? Should we act as if they have become Jewish when they themselves have made it clear that they don’t wish (at least not at this time) to take that momentous step? To do so strikes me as condescending and disrespectful.

Ed appears to find the Jewish community’s welcome too warm. He is embarrassed at the hospitality toward conversion shown within the liberal Jewish denominations: “It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a rabbi or a movement or a Jewish leader to call for conversion without conveying the message that those who do not convert are less valued, less worthy, deficient in important respects.” This is fascinating. I can understand how hostility to conversion could be construed as disrespectful to gentiles, but how can openness to conversion be considered offensive? I don’t know a single rabbi who would deem those who do not convert to be less valued, less worthy or deficient. But I also don’t know any who fail to recognize that someone who has converted has taken a profound, deliberate step worthy of respect.

One would need to deny the fundamental distinctiveness of a Jewish identity in order to suggest that conversion makes no difference in a person’s religious, spiritual or cultural life. Certainly those who’ve refrained from converting understand this difference quite well.

Ed argues that “intermarried non-Jews want to be accepted as they are.” But pretending that non-Jews are Jews isn’t treating them, much less accepting them, as who they are.

I certainly agree with Ed that it is wrong to be unwelcoming to non-Jews (whether they are married to Jews or not). But I fail to see how respecting and accepting someone’s choice not to be Jewish is unwelcoming. On the contrary, it has been my experience that those who value their own personal reasons for refraining from pursuing conversion find it a relief not to be treated as if they are Jewish.

Ed’s goals are worthy. He wants intermarried non-Jews to be comfortable in the synagogue. He wants to encourage them to live Jewishly. He wants them to raise Jewish children. His notion seems to be that communal boundaries risk alienating intermarried parents who want to raise their children as Jews, and if only these barriers could be eliminated, intermarried and unconverted non-Jews would be “encouraged and supported in their own Jewish living and their efforts to raise their children as Jews.”

I don’t agree. Given the extraordinary openness to conversion within the liberal Jewish denominations, the true obstacle to the “complete participation in Jewish life” is not necessarily the Jewish community at all. No matter how energetically a community strives to promote a policy of “total inclusion,” it can never eliminate whatever feelings of being different may be generated from within an individual who has chosen not to be Jewish.

The Jewish community should treat all human beings with respect, including, of course, those who have married Jews and who are raising Jewish children. But let us demonstrate our feelings in ways that are truly respectful. Let us give people the right to choose to be who they wish to be. Let us accept people as they are, rather than pretend that they are who some of us might wish them to be.

Let’s Be Respectful By Being Totally Inclusive: A Response to Rabbi Carl Perkins

I admire and respect Rabbi Perkins very much, and feel honored that he chose to respond to my essay which argued for a policy of “total inclusion” of intermarried families in Jewish religious life. I especially appreciate Rabbi Perkins’ commitment to keruv (outreach) to intermarried families, and his agreement that intermarried non-Jews who are raising Jewish children should be welcomed and appreciated by the Jewish community. It’s also difficult to disagree with his proposition that we should “respect people for who they are” — and yet, we do have a very fundamental difference of opinion as to what such respect means.

In my essay, I identified a phenomenon which the religious movements have failed to address: intermarried non-Jewish spouses who actively participate in raising their children as Jews, who don’t practice another religion, who attend Jewish services and observe Jewish holidays — people who are “living Jewishly — without converting.” I argued that we need a religious movement that would allow and indeed encourage these people to completely participate in Jewish life.

I take issue with Rabbi Perkins when he says that my proposal involves “pretending: — “pretending” that people who have chosen not to convert haven’t made that choice, “pretending” that non-Jews are Jews, or “pretending” that they are who I “might wish them to be.” I’m not proposing that anyone “pretend” anything.

As Rabbi Perkins and I have discussed, there is a distinction between being Jewish and living Jewishly. My position is that the Jewish religious movements should encourage and allow intermarried non-Jews to live as Jewishly as those individuals choose to, whether or not they are or become Jewish. Rabbi Perkins seems more interested in whether people become Jewish, while I am more interested in having intermarried non-Jews live Jewishly than in whether such people should be considered “full members of the Jewish people.” I would allow them to act as if they were full members, yes, but that isn’t pretending anything if we’re up front about saying that we encourage and allow non-Jews to live Jewishly even if they aren’t or don’t become Jewish. The Jewish community will be better off the more Jewishly these people live, both for their own sakes and because their efforts to raise Jewish children will be all the more supported and encouraged.

Rabbi Perkins and I agree that people who seek to live Jewishly without being Jewish experience “feelings of being different.” But I disagree with Rabbi Perkins’ suggestion that since non-Jews are welcome to convert, the obstacles they face to complete participation in Jewish life come not from the Jewish community, but from those feelings of difference within the non-Jews themselves. That smacks to me of “blaming the victim.” The feelings of difference arise in large part because so much of Jewish liturgy emphasizes Jewish peoplehood and chosenness, and because the religious movements are restrictive about ritual participation by non-Jews, and because so many Jews convey attitudes that distinguish between negative “them” and positive “us,” and for other similar reasons. I argue that by changing the attitudes of the Jewish community, and by eliminating the religious movements’ boundaries and barriers to complete participation in Jewish life, the feelings of being different will be significantly reduced, which will encourage intermarried non-Jews to live more Jewishly – and that would be a very desirable result.

I don’t suggest that reducing barriers and boundaries will completely eliminate the feelings of being different that non-Jews experience. Indeed, I think that some people probably convert after years of living Jewishly because they are uncomfortable continuing to experience that dissonance and seek an inner harmony or unity instead – and I agree that conversion can make a profound difference in a person’s religious, spiritual and cultural life. Contrary to what Rabbi Perkins says, I’m not embarrassed that the liberal Jewish denominations welcome conversions, and I don’t consider it offensive to do so. But because conversion is not the answer for all, or even most, of our intermarried non-Jews, promoting conversion must be done very carefully, without making those intermarried non-Jews feel less valued – and that is a very hard thing to do.

Perhaps we come to our different positions because of the ways we frame the question. Rabbi Perkins emphasizes respecting a person’s choice not to become Jewish, but he interprets that choice as meaning that the person does not want to live Jewishly. This doesn’t acknowledge the phenomenon of intermarried non-Jews who can and do want to live Jewishly even if they don’t consider themselves to be Jewish. Perhaps we come to our different positions because of our experiences. Rabbi Perkins refers to his experience with people who have not converted and do not want to be treated as if they were Jewish; my experience is with people who want to feel unified with their Jewish families by participating fully in synagogue life and ritual.

In sum, my main concern is with the intermarried non-Jews who live with the dissonance, who are not ready or willing to convert, yet who seek to live Jewish lives, who define the religious identity of their families as Jewish, who seek to have their religious and spiritual needs met in Judaism. I submit that it would be completely respectful of these individuals, and their integrity, maturity, and sense of self, to encourage and allow them to live as Jewishly as they choose, without becoming Jewish. The religious movements’ insistence on promoting conversion, and on maintaining boundaries and barriers between what is allowed for those who are Jewish and those who are not, risks alienating the very individuals to whom we should be reaching out.

How to Talk to Your Kids about Interfaith Dating: For Those Married to Jews or in Interfaith Marriages

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February 2000

There’s a book written by a leading Conservative Rabbi, Alan Silverstein, titled It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Intermarriage. The goal of the book, as I understood it, is to promote an approach to preventing intermarriage. I don’t think that intermarriage can be prevented, and I think that trying to do so can be very counter-productive. If the message communicated is that intermarriage is wrong, you shouldn’t intermarry, though if you do we’ll welcome you — then the last part of the message is likely not to be heard.

If intermarriage can’t be prevented, then being totally inclusive and welcoming of intermarrieds from the outset is a much wiser approach for the Jewish community, in my opinion. But there certainly is an element of truth to the book’s title, because it — intermarriage — does all begin with a date. So how do we talk to kids about interdating?

In theory, I don’t believe that it should be all that complicated. At least, that should be the case if the parents have raised their children as Jews and conveyed to them through their own actions the value that they place on living Jewishly. Because the message then seems pretty clear to me, and it goes like this:

  • We, your parents, would like to see you live a Jewish life because we have found it to be a source of meaning and purpose in our own lives, although we recognize that you will have to decide for yourself whether you want to live Jewishly.
  • If you want to have a Jewish family and a Jewish life, we want you to know that your chances of doing so are far greater if you marry someone who is Jewish. You may know and see intermarried parents who are living Jewishly and think that that could happen to you, too, if you intermarry, but the statistics clearly show, for example, that a relatively small percentage of intermarried parents raise their children as Jews, and if you ask intermarried parents about it, they’ll tell you that although it is possible, it isn’t so easy to have a Jewish family and to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage.
  • If you want to marry someone who is Jewish, your chances of doing so are far greater if you date Jews. You may think that dating is only dating, but we don’t think you can control who you fall in love with, and if you think about it, your first experience with the person you end up marrying is highly likely to be — a date.

In practice, I’ve tried this approach with my own children. My daughter, who’s now twenty-one, has had three serious boyfriends. She met the first one on a bicycle trip on the West Coast, and he happened to be Jewish; the second was a classmate in high school, the third a classmate in college, and neither was Jewish. Right now she’s not involved with anyone in particular. My son, who’s seventeen, is involved right now with a Jewish girl he met on a trip to Israel. To be honest, I haven’t talked about this with my daughter recently. I suspect that her primary value would be finding someone to love, and whether he was Jewish or not would be of only secondary concern.

When I look at the approach I’ve outlined, it occurs to me that although I would very much like my children to marry Jews, for the reasons stated above, it’s not my primary value either — it’s more important to me that they find a good mate than that they find a Jewish mate. After all, while it may be difficult and statistically unlikely to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage, it’s still possible. I’m intermarried myself, and my children know that they were raised with strong Jewish identities in an intermarriage.

But I don’t think the way to talk about interfaith dating should be that much different if the parents are both Jewish, or if they are intermarried. The approach I’ve outlined could be used equally by either type of parents. If the parents are intermarried, the statement that it isn’t easy for intermarried parents to raise Jewish children will probably be more credible, although the children may also be more likely to think that if their parents did it, they could, too.

I suppose one difference between intermarried parents and two Jewish parents is that it would be pretty hypocritical for intermarried parents to tell their children that it would be wrong for them to intermarry. But I don’t think it’s effective to tell teenagers and young adults that interfaith dating is wrong — that message won’t take hold in the vast majority of young American Jews who are living in a very open society, are mixing constantly with others who are not Jewish, and are likely to find the message exclusive or discriminatory. I also don’t think it’s effective to tell teenagers and young adults that they should do something because it’s important to you as their parents — I think they have to make their own decisions.

Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community

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October 1999

Review of Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community, by Gary A.Tobin (Jossey-Bass Publishers, $25).

Gary Tobin, a leading researcher of the Jewish community, has written a provocative book in which he calls for organized, systematic efforts by the Jewish community to seek converts. Tobin defines “proactive conversion” simply as welcoming non-Jews to become Jews. He says he doesn’t advocate proselytizing–he wants to just open the gates, not charge out of them. He doesn’t want to abandon standards for conversion as set by the religious movements. He just wants the Jewish community to have a positive attitude towards conversion and to take advantage of the American phenomenon of denomination switching.

Tobin addresses and disagrees with the standard arguments against seeking conversion: that it is traditional to discourage conversion, not to encourage it; that it will produce a backlash in the Christian community; that it shouldn’t be a priority for use of the community’s limited funds; that it only produces one generation of Jews (because their children do not remain Jewish); that converts are religious but not communal or people oriented; and that it would be preferable to have a smaller number of core, committed Jews than a larger number of uninvolved ones.

Among the benefits Tobin anticipates for the Jewish community if it follows his advice, beyond increasing the numbers of Jews, are that reaching out forces a re-examination of the structure of the Jewish community; converts add a richness to Jewish life and inspire born Jews to participate; and having more racially and ethnically diverse Jews will help Jews bridge gaps with other groups.

Potential targets identified by Tobin for these conversionary efforts include non-Jewish spouses of Jews; children of intermarrieds; individuals with some Jewish heritage; the “unchurched;” and those who are unsatisfied with their current religion.

A lot of what Tobin says rings true. He argues that it is important for Jews not to regard converts as lesser than born Jews (interestingly, Tobin’s wife is a convert). He has an excellent discussion of conversion as a transformation of identity through experience and understanding–a process of becoming that begins prior to a formal conversion ceremony, and continues thereafter, and shouldn’t be expected to occur prior to marriage (interestingly, Tobin’s wife converted after three of their six children were born).

What is missing from Tobin’s book is a convincing presentation of why conversion is necessary or preferable to non-Jews making Jewish choices without formally converting. Why couldn’t Tobin call for “proactive inclusion” instead of proactive conversion? The motivations he cites for converting–selecting a Jewish spouse, searching for spiritual well being, and desiring to be part of a vibrant community–can be had without conversion. He says that unambiguously Jewish families are necessary to transmit Jewish traditions, but that can happen in intermarriages too; then he assumes that conversion turns a family into an unambiguously Jewish family, but the spouses in such a family could be very minimally involved, while the spouses in an intermarried family could be very involved. Instead of promoting conversion, the community could encourage intermarried spouses to make Jewish choices, including possibly conversion.

Tobin also avoids any serious discussion of the issue of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages. He says that the first contact an interested non-Jew has with the official Jewish community can determine if the person decides to proceed with or withdraw from the process of becoming a Jew–but despite the fact that that first contact in many cases is with a rabbi asked to officiate, Tobin does not advocate strongly for such officiation.

Opening the Gates is not a “how to convert” book. It is an interesting extended policy argument in favor of promoting conversion. Those considering conversion may find it useful in explaining the kinds of attitudes that converts can encounter in the Jewish community, but it is not meant to address what it feels like to undergo the conversion process.

Parenting My Jewish Children in Our Interfaith Family: A Jewish Parent’s Point of View

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November 1998

When my daughter Emily was sixteen, she started to date an observant Conservative Jew. One night she was invited for Shabbat dinner. By that point she knew all about our Reform movement’s policy on patrilineal descent, under which she is recognized as a Jew. However, I thought I should remind her that in the eyes of some other Jews, because her mother is not Jewish she would not be considered Jewish at all. When I did point that out, Emily very defiantly stated, “No one is going to tell me that I’m not Jewish!” This was a bittersweet moment for me. I was happy and proud of how strongly she felt. But I was, and still am, pained about this–why would any Jew want to reject, to exclude from the Jewish people, my caring, intelligent, beautiful, and very Jewishly committed daughter?

I’ve talked quite a bit recently with Emily, who is now twenty, about how her Jewish identity was formed. She remembers feeling, when she was little, that she was “half and half.” She also remembers that while she and I were walking hand in hand one day, I told her that she wasn’t half and half, that her Mom and I had decided that she was all Jewish. She says that from that point on, that’s what she felt. It’s hard to believe it was that simple, but I guess our children do pay attention to what we say, and at least some of the time it has a real impact.

I do think it’s important for parents to make sure to communicate their thoughts on religious identity to their children. When Emily’s Bat Mitzvah approached, she asked, “Why is it so important to you, anyway?” (By then she had stopped accepting everything I said). I remember being really taken aback, because I assumed that she knew why it was so important to me. But I hadn’t told her. So I ended up writing a long letter to her, about how I loved my immigrant grandparents, how I experienced some anti-Semitism growing up, how I was one of the rare people who enjoyed Hebrew school and Jewish learning, how I felt about Israel, and more. I learned that we can’t expect our children to know what’s in our heads if we don’t express it to them explicitly.

I’m pretty confident that both Emily and my son Adam, who is sixteen, have strong Jewish identities. Emily was the co-leader of the Yale Hillel Reform Chavurah last year. Adam has read most of the novels of Leon Uris and Herman Wouk, and every once in a while, when he hears a positive story in the media about Jews, he says, “There’s another one for us.” He loved Israel when we went as a family five years ago, and is looking forward to returning next summer on a NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) trip.

I’m very fortunate in that my wife does not practice another religious faith and that she fully participates in our family’s Jewish experiences, even though she has not converted to Judaism. Of course, we’re as close to my wife’s parents as we are to mine, and our children clearly know that their mother and her parents come from a different tradition. They’re certainly reminded of this every Christmas, which we have always spent at my in-laws. Yet they aren’t confused about being Jewish themselves.

If you had looked at our behavior early in our marriage, you might have wondered whether our children would have a Jewish identity. I think I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted the children to be Jewish, but in their earliest years I didn’t do much about it. For example, when my daughter was born, I didn’t even think about giving her a Hebrew name, and my parents didn’t raise the subject either. She got her Hebrew name, Tirzah, one day at the Boston Children’s Museum, which was having a multicultural festival. One of the activities involved learning the Hebrew name that had the same meaning as your English name.  The person at the booth looked up the meaning of the name Emily, found out that it means industrious, then looked up the Hebrew name that means industrious, and found Tirzah. She then calligraphed Tirzah in Hebrew, and we still have the paper that Emily was handed that day. (When she was ten, we had our rabbi over and he did a somewhat more official naming ceremony for her and Adam.

As another example, I was never comfortable with the idea of having a Christmas tree in our house, but when the kids were pre-school age, we did have a Norfolk pine all year long, and at Christmas time we did put a few ornaments on it. By the time the children started school, though, they also started at Jewish religious school. By then, I think all of us were uncomfortable even with that degree of “decorating” a tree, and we stopped. Looking back now, our Norfolk pine with ornaments seems a little foolish. But my point is that our attitudes and our practices evolved. When our children were younger my wife and I were still negotiating how we would adjust our individual traditions, and that takes time. I think that my agreeing to put some ornaments on the Norfolk pine showed my wife that I respected her tradition and helped to enable us to reach a mutual decision later on.

Although my children have strong Jewish identities now, my confidence is qualified because one can never know what the future will bring, and I suppose the real test of their Jewish identity will be whether they will want to raise their own children as Jews. But our experience to date is one example of many that show that it is very possible, and very rewarding, to raise Jewish children in an interfaith family.