Remembering Rachel Cowan

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The Jewish world lost an extraordinary leader at the end of August when Rabbi Rachel Cowan died. Most of the much-deserved tributes have focused on her contributions in the areas of social justice, Jewish healing, and Jewish spirituality and mindfulness. I would like to highlight something that has received less attention: Rachel Cowan’s leadership in efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly.

As Sandee Brawarsky wrote in the Jewish Week,

Rabbi Cowan successfully channeled her own life challenges and experiences into innovations in Jewish life for others — always a few steps ahead: A Jew by choice, she did outreach and teaching to those considering intermarriage and conversion, and wrote a book with Paul, Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage.

She was indeed a few steps ahead. Mixed Blessings appeared in 1988, not long after Egon Mayer’s Marriage Between Christians and Jews and the Reform movement built up its outreach efforts. Reading Mixed Blessings had a big impact on me. Rachel understood that interfaith couples wanted to understand and learn from the experiences of other couples like them. She understood that telling their stories, as she did in the book, and putting them together with other couples in structured discussion groups, as she did in her outreach work, would satisfy that need – and lead to more interfaith families being more Jewishly engaged.

I was honored and privileged to know Rachel. My first job in the Jewish world was at Jewish Family & Life! starting in 1999 as publisher of its InterfaithFamily.com web magazine. I got to know Rachel as a funder of JFL at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and she was always personally supportive from that point forward (the photo accompanying this post was taken at the 2007 Slingshot conference).

In November 2002 I wrote an essay for the Forward about how the Jewish world should respond to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey’s findings of continued high intermarriage. I referred to Rachel having said that “people can tell when their welcome in genuine.” All of these years later, after much back and forth about how to respond to intermarriage, I can see now that Rachel had zeroed in on the most important thing that is needed to engage interfaith families: attitudes and policies that are radically inclusive of them.

I will always treasure an email exchange I had with Rachel in December 2016. In response to a message about my transitioning from InterfaithFamily’s leadership, Rachel wrote “kol hakavod to you Ed.  You had a dream, and you built it, and it is profoundly influencing contemporary American Jewish life!” I responded with “Thanks, that means a lot, coming from you. I am trying to write a book – when the time comes, I hope you’ll consider writing something for the cover.” Rachel responded with “no doubt I will.” Sadly, my forthcoming book was not far enough along to send to Rachel for comment before her terrible illness progressed too far.

I feel profound loss yet am inspired by how exceptional Rachel was in her many areas of interest and in the great impact she had on so many people both personally and more broadly. She belongs in a rarified league, along with Rabbi Alexander Schindler and Egon Mayer, as a pioneer in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. May her memory always be for a blessing.

Progress on Officiation

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InterfaithFamily has released a report on its survey of rabbis’ practices around officiation and co-officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. The highlights of the report have been covered by JTA and the Forward and follow a recent Forward story on Rabbi Joe Black changing his position on officiation after thirty years as a rabbi. The survey results show that a lot of progress has been made towards helping interfaith couples have a positive experience when they seek to have a rabbi present at their weddings – and that there are frontier issues that continue to challenge how rabbis perform their roles.

For as long as I can remember, the accepted wisdom has been that “about half” of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis would officiate for interfaith couples. The last reported survey, in 1995, said it was 47%; the new survey says it is 85%. (Forty-four percent of the members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association responded to the survey; 23% of the members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.)

And for as long as I can remember, the perception has been that very few or relatively few rabbis would co-officiate at weddings with clergy from other faiths; the last reported survey said it was 13%. There is a lot of ambiguity in what “co-officiation” means; it could mean sharing a service with other clergy, or it could mean being the sole officiant but allowing other clergy to participate; and the big variable seems to be whether the other clergy can make theological references to other religions – which usually means, mention Jesus. In the new survey, 25% said they would co-officiate, and another 20% who said they did not co-officiate said they would permit other clergy to offer a prayer or reading without any theological reference to another religion. In addition, 47% said they would offer a prayer, reading or blessing at a service performed by clergy from another faith.

These figures clearly indicate an opening among rabbis to officiating for interfaith couples. Frontier issues remain that challenge rabbis and may cause discomfort among couples. First, of the rabbis who do officiate, 59% require as a condition of doing so that the couple commit to establish a Jewish home/raise children as Jews. Couples who aren’t “there yet,” who aren’t willing to make that commitment, are likely to have a harder time finding a rabbi to officiate, based on the numbers who are willing to when that is the case. Couples seeking co-officiation, and particular forms of co-officiation, are likely to have a harder time, for the same reason. And couples planning weddings before sundown on Saturday are likely to have a harder time because only 59% will officiate then.

The comments rabbis offered in response to open-ended survey questions were fascinating. Few of the rabbis mentioned Jewish law as a large factor in their decision to officiate or not to officiate. Most of the rabbis mentioned viewing their role as being to facilitate creation of Jewish homes, families and children. One rabbi explained her change of position by saying she realized that her job as a rabbi was “not to make Jewish marriages but to facilitate the creation of Jewish families.”  That is an important distinction that shifts the focus away from halachic requirements for Jewish wedding ceremonies and towards the impact of officiation.

Years ago I visited a Reform rabbi on the North Shore of Chicago who told me that she did not officiate for interfaith couples because of Steven M. Cohen’s research showing that interfaith families were not Jewishly engaged (she has since changed her position). Based on the comments in the new survey, it seems clear to me that rabbis by and large no longer accept that point of view; a number made comments that suggest a serious shift in attitudes about intermarriage.

Thus, many rabbis explained their decision to officiate by referring to their experience with numerous interfaith couples who were creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. One said, “I believe that interfaith families are a strength in our Jewish community. Many non-Jewish spouses are very committed to raising Jewish children. This has been my own life experience and what I see in my community presently. Interfaith couples are not a threat to Judaism.” I thought this comment was particularly powerful:

My reason NOT to officiate had always been, “It is my job description to create and sanctify new Jewish households.” And I believed that only two Jews could produce such a thing. However, real-life showed me something different and, after nearly ten years of turning down interfaith weddings, I announced my change in policy and began officiating under certain circumstances. I delivered a major sermon on the High Holy Days about my change in practice, and it was the first time that I actually received a standing ovation!

The opposition to co-officiation seems to be based primarily on an assumption rabbis make about what the fact that the couple wants co-offication means. One said, “[I]f there is clergy from other faiths co-officiating, my interpretation is that this couple has decided to create a family and build their home (as the chuppah represents) as one that is not a family that is committed to Judaism.” Another said,

I don’t wish to support a view that Judaism is an “option” in the couple’s life among other “co-existing” or “competing” cultural expressions or life paths. While this approach might be the reality for a given couple, affirming that reality doesn’t align with my sense of rabbinic purpose.

Of course it is also entirely possible that couples may want co-officiation because they want to honor the traditions of both of their families and have not decided what they will ultimately do in terms of their home or family or children being Jewish. It seems clear to me that the main reason for the shift towards being more open to officiation is that rabbis have come to believe that rejection pushes interfaith couples away while officiation leads many to create Jewish homes, families and children. But that logic would equally apply to couples seeking co-officiation, who will be pushed away by rejection and drawn in by the rabbi’s participation.

As the survey report says, officiation and co-officiation issues continue to be important to rabbis – 34% said they would be interested in participating in clergy-only conversations led by InterfaithFamily to discuss those topics.

My Thoughts on Steven M. Cohen’s #MeToo Moment

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Steven M. Cohen has been perhaps the most prominent critic of intermarriage. For almost twenty years he has been my ideological nemesis and I have disagreed quite vehemently with the substance of his analysis and interpretation of survey research.

There has been wide publicity of news that Cohen repeatedly sexually harassed numerous women in his field. Some have argued that his work should be re-evaluated or discounted as a result.

I have often felt that Cohen demonstrated a subjective bias against intermarriage. I agree with Jane Eisner that Cohen “and a few other select sociologists evolved from being dispassionate researchers and analysts to advocates for policy solutions.”

I can understand how there may be an invalidating connection between Cohen’s bad conduct and his research conclusions concerning fertility and time of marriage, as some have argued. But I don’t see the possible connection with his research conclusions concerning intermarriage. Cohen’s arguments on intermarriage need to be challenged on their merits, not because of his bad conduct.

Language Shapes Reality

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My friend Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily / Philadelphia, wrote a wonderful Torah portion column titled “Language Helps to Shape Reality.” She notes that Jews too often use language that is insensitive to people in interfaith relationships, describing intermarriage as a problem, or suggesting people don’t “look Jewish,” or qualifying how they describe their child’s partner (“but they aren’t Jewish”).

Even though the person using the language may not intend for it to be hurtful, the impact is still the same. It’s hurtful to the person about whom it’s spoken, and it’s hurtful to the reality that we continue to shape.

Robyn prays that “may we, God’s partner’s in creation, use our words to shape a reality that is welcoming and inclusive to all those who choose to align themselves with the Jewish community.” I say a hearty “Amen” to that. But since the dust-up about Michael Chabon last month, on the score of shaping an inclusive reality with words, there have been some steps forward, some staying in place, and some steps backward.

In the steps forward column, in “Is non-Jew an insult?JTA editor Andy Silow-Carrol relates how he scoffed at first when a friend suggested he stop using the terms “non-Jew” and “gentile.” Then he appeared on a panel with Lindsey Silken, InterfaithFamily’s editorial director, who explained that leading with the negative can make the people it is referring to feel excluded and on the outside of the Jewish community. Now Andy is “not scoffing anymore… [I]f it avoids insulting someone, why not refer to individuals as the ‘partner from another faith’ or a ‘person from a different background’?”

In the staying in place column – by which I mean the absence of explicit language about interfaith families – Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote an interesting opinion piece about the Reform movement’s efforts to create a network of Reform congregations that power millennial communities. He writes that “many previously unconnected young people” are looking for these communities “because they seek a sense of purpose to anchor their lives” in our very uncertain times. He notes that this is a  “deeply questioning generation, one that doesn’t easily join synagogues or institutions in general, … fluid in their identities.” “Traditional forms of institutions don’t necessarily work for them. We need to help them find the place and the freedom to shape their own Judaism.”

This is a very positive development and I hope it grows. I couldn’t help but note that the first millennial whose personal story is described was raised by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. But it struck me that there was no other explicit reference to any particular effort to attract or provide community for  millennials who are either the children of intermarried parents, or millennials who are in interfaith relationships. I think that was a lost opportunity.

In an interesting juxtaposition, there was also an article about a trend in emerging spiritual communities, who were previously differentiated from synagogues because they didn’t have buildings, to starting to build buildings. Again, I couldn’t help but note that one of the four community founders quoted in the article did mention interfaith couples – she said that there wasn’t a space where Conservative Jews, “Jews by choice, Reform Jews, interfaith couples, where people could come in and be able to really witness and feel a Judaism that was closer to something that they would practice.” But again, there wasn’t a mention in the article of any particular effort or focus on engaging interfaith families in emerging spiritual communities. I think that was a lost opportunity.

In the steps backward column is a statement by Issac Herzog, the new head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who reportedly said about a trip to the US: “I encountered something that I called an actual plague [magefa]. I saw my friends’ children married or coupled with non-Jewish partners … And we are talking about millions. And then I said there must be a campaign, a solution.”

Referring to intermarriage as a “plague” is about as diametrically opposed to using welcoming and inclusive language as one could get. In an interview with Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner, Herzog said reactions to his statement “‘distorted the meaning and intention of what I said’… The discourse on interfaith relations is different in Israel, he said. He was using magefa as a slang word: ‘I didn’t mean it in any negative terms.’”

After noting that Herzog was educated in the US, Eisner says she is “willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here — as long as takes this early stumble as a warning sign that many American Jews are becoming increasingly unwilling to let anyone, from Israel or their own communal organizations, tell them what to think and how to behave and who to love.” In contrast, Israeli blogger and writer Jonathan Ofir, writing on Mondoweiss, says:

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, I know the inside and outside of the Hebrew language and its colloquial usage. You understood it fully in English. It means exactly what you think it means. It is of purely negative connotation. For Herzog to suggest that he “didn’t mean it in any negative terms” is just an insult to the intelligence.

In “Letter to an Israeli-Jewish Friend,” Eisner also wrote a letter to an Israeli friend in which she appears to equate intermarriage and assimilation:

Americans, for the most part, love us. They love us so much that it’s perfectly okay to marry us — which accounts for growing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, and therefore a very mixed blessing.

Overall, I have to say that I think the steps backward and the staying in place outweigh the steps forward on inclusivity – wouldn’t you agree? In the end, the language people use when they talk about intermarriage reflects their underlying attitudes about the issue. Andy Silow-Carroll’s piece starts out by saying that the term “non-Jew” is useful “[u]nless you want to pretend there are no distinctions between people who identify as Jews and people who identify as something else — and making such distinctions strikes me as about 85 percent of the entire Jewish enterprise, starting at Sinai.” The main point of my forthcoming book is that in order to engage interfaith families, we need to treat partners from different faith backgrounds as equal to Jews. If we really adopted that radically inclusive attitudes, language choices would be very clear. But we have a long way to go to get to that point.

Finally, my friend Rabbi Brian Field, in his take on the Chabon debate, suggests that a good place to start in determining those attitudes is the Torah:

How one reads Torah will determine how one approaches any question about Judaism, including intermarriage. If one reads Torah with an emphasis on the parts that promote exclusion of people of different backgrounds, one can see intermarriage as an affront to Torah.  But if one reads Torah with an emphasis on the voices that promote inclusion of people of different backgrounds, one can see intermarriage as an authentic and necessary part of the mitzvah of Jewish marriage.

Responding to the Fishman / Cohen / Wertheimer Challenge

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Last Friday Sylvia Barack Fishman, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer described Michael Chabon’s views on intermarriage as “morally abhorrent.” The JTA published my reply on Monday, ‘Radical inclusion’ of interfaith families is the best response to Michael Chabon.

In their essay, Fishman and her co-authors address several questions to proponents of welcoming and inclusion (I’ve added numbers):

  1. Where would you draw boundaries?
  2. Where do you stand on maintaining some distinctions between Jews and others?
  3. Is Jewish group survival a force for good or for ill, not only for individual Jews but for humanity?
  4. Should we teach the next generation that all Jews —both those born Jewish and converts — are in a kinship relationship with one another as heirs of a unique, rich and valuable cultural heritage?

They end by asking “Which side are you on?” A rabbi I spoke with described that as a challenge to which I offer this explicit response:

  1. We should draw boundaries around the content of Jewish traditions – the cultural richness, intellectual wealth, moral wisdom, warmth of community life, social justice and engagement with Israel that they refer to – but not around who gets to participate in those traditions.
  2. In order to maximize the Jewish engagement of interfaith couples and families, we should not maintain distinctions between intermarried Jews and their partners from different faith backgrounds.
  3. Of course Jewish group survival is a force for good, not only for Jews, but also for their partners from different faith traditions who should be included in the Jewish group, as well as for humanity.
  4. We need to broaden our thinking beyond only born Jews and converts being in kinship relationships and heirs to Jewish tradition. We need to adapt our concept of Jewish “people” to a broader Jewish “community” that includes everyone who is Jewishly engaged – Jews, their partners from different faith backgrounds, and their children – to welcome and include all of those people as heirs to our valuable heritage.

The challenge I would pose is whether Jewish leaders truly want to maximize the Jewish engagement of interfaith families – the Jewish partner, the partner from a different faith background, and most importantly their children – and what steps they are willing to take towards that end.

Intermarriage in the Bible and Rabbinic Tradition

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In April and May 2018, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, President and Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, delivered an important series of three lectures on Intermarriage: Choices and Consequences. (Hadar is “a leader in the field of Jewish education and community building, engaging diverse populations in serious Jewish learning with curiosity, creativity and conviction.”)

If you are seriously interested in learning how intermarriage is discussed in the Bible and in halacha, or Jewish law, I strongly recommend that you take the time to listen to the lectures and review the source sheets that accompany them. If your time is limited, and/or you are most interested in the current practical consequences of the analysis, I recommend that you listen to the lectures in reverse order, starting with the third.

Rabbi Tucker explores what the Torah and halacha, Jewish law, say about intermarriage. Deuteronomy 7:1-4, which some cite as a blanket prohibition, actually forbids intermarriage with seven named tribes in the land of Canaan that the Israelites were about to enter, and further says that those who intermarry will become idolaters, worshipping other Gods. The text raises the question whether the reason for the prohibition is to maintain the Jewishly distinctive ethnic group in the local area, or to prevent idolatry – a question discussed extensively in in the Talmud and medieval commentaries.

Rabbi Tucker articulates the possibility that intermarriage with someone who is not from the named tribes and who is not an idolater might be permissible. The prohibition would be historically contextualized to another time and place. If contemporary Gentiles (the term he uses) are not idolaters, nor agents likely to lead Jews astray, but rather potential powerful allies of Judaism as a system of living who can protect the historically fragile Jewish people and even spread Torah more widely in the world – then potentially intermarriage would not be inconsistent with the halachic tradition.

Rabbi Tucker is quick to add that while this argument can be made, it is tenuous. He says the important question is not whether halacha can embrace something, but why it should or shouldn’t. He considers several models under which intermarriage might be embraced, ultimately concluding, as I understand it, that it should not be.

First, Rabbi Tucker says that tradition insists on predictable and sustainable rules of descent, which he says were patrilineal in the Biblical period and matrilineal in the rabbinic period. I understand him to be saying that if the Jewishness of the children of intermarriage followed the matrilineal rule, then it might be embraced. But he says he never met an advocate of embracing intermarriage who did not also advocate for “ambilineality,” which he says is a standard for Jewishness that is not meaningful and cannot be squared with Biblical or rabbinic thinking about descent.

I hadn’t heard the term “ambilineal” before; I understand it to describe the Reform and Reconstructionist approach that children who are raised as Jews are Jewish whether their mother or father (or both, for that matter) are Jewish. I don’t understand why an ambilineal approach is not meaningful, especially where descent has been patrilineal at times and matrilineal at times.

Rabbi Tucker says a second way to embrace intermarriage is to see it as serving a mission to spread the Torah to the entire world. Rabbi Tucker seems to equate spreading the Torah in this regard as making the mitzvot obligatory on more people – he says the mitzvot could be “a life manual for everyone.” Since in the traditional view, mitzvot are obligatory only on Jews, spreading mitzvot would mean converting Gentiles; and that, Rabbi Tucker says, is inconsistent with tradition, which holds that righteous Gentiles share in the world to come without embracing Judaism, meaning that there is no impetus to convert people to Judaism.

Rabbi Tucker says a third way to embrace intermarriage would be to define Jewishness by religious practice, not ethnic/familial background. In support of this view, Rabbi Tucker cites pieces of rabbinic tradition that suggest that one who does not observe Shabbat is not a Jew. But he rejects this argument because there is no stomach for policing communal boundaries around religious practice.

In a liberal Jewish view, however, spreading the Torah to the world would not mean making the mitzvot obligatory through conversion, and defining Jewishness by religious practice would not involve policing compliance. What if intermarriage leads more unconverted people from different faith backgrounds to live more Jewishly – regarding mitzvot as aspirational, making informed choices about which to consider obligatory on themselves, and engaging in more Jewish rituals and practices – would that be sufficient for the tradition to embrace intermarriage?

In an aside, Rabbi Tucker includes a startling text: I Corinthians 7, in which Paul says that believers married to unbelievers should not divorce them, because the unbeliever partners are sanctified through the believer partners, and their children are holy. Rabbi Tucker explains that Paul was concerned with building a church, not maintaining an ethnic group, and his universal and missionizing approach influenced his view of intermarriage. To him, the believing partner would carry the day and influence the unbeliever towards belief.

Rabbi Tucker says that the discussion about intermarriage is a proxy for a discussion about what Judaism is and ought to be. In the book I am writing and expect to have published in the spring of 2019, I emphasize a distinction between being Jewish and doing Jewish that is critically important in engaging interfaith families Jewishly. I argue that it is more important for a partner from a different faith tradition to do Jewish than to be Jewish, and that that focus will lead to more interfaith families engaging Jewishly, and more people identifying more Jewishly – halachically or otherwise.

Rabbi Tucker draws the same distinction, more elegantly. He says the debate is whether Judaism is a covenant that flows through the blood and genes of the Jewish people that calls and contains us, or a deep reservoir of practices we can call on for meaning. He distinguishes between covenantalists – to whom Judaism is what you inescapably are, and civilizationalists, to whom Judaism is an incredible resource, to be shared as generously and with as few boundaries as possible. He says covenantalists can’t embrace intermarriage, while civilizationalists would be insane or bigoted not to.

Rabbi Tucker acknowledges that most American Jews favor a voluntaristic Judaism, open to all, not claiming superiority to other traditions. They think that building up more Judaism and inviting people to be part of it will do better than maintaining boundaries and keeping definitions clear. They eschew objective essence as a category for defining a Jew, and resist standards on lineage, belief and practice. Rabbi Tucker says this view is viable and might perpetuate Judaism’s texts and values, but is a radical departure with rabbinic understanding of a covenant between God and an eternal, separate, distinctive Jewish people.

But in reviewing relevant sources, Rabbi Tucker includes Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 36a: “You do not decree a decree on the community unless most of the community can uphold it.” He refers to this as “the nuclear option” about any rabbinic decree – a ruling that cannot command adherence ought no longer be enforced. The prohibition against intermarriage at this point is not being upheld by most of the community.

Rabbi Tucker is not optimistic that the traditional covenantalists and the liberal civilizationalists will be able to work together. I think that the liberal community already respects the traditional community, so whether the two can work together depends on whether the traditional community will accept and respect the liberal approach, or reject and disdain it. Where halachic status matters – for example, if a traditional Jew wants to marry a patrilineal Jew – that concern can be addressed through conversion.

Rabbi Tucker’s closing goal as I understand it is to hold to the Torah vision of building models of community that will make the promise that we will be an eternal people a reality. As a civilizationalist who respects the covenantalist position, I would amend that goal by referring to the promise that we will be an eternal people and Judaism an eternal resource. Liberal Judaism’s adoption of a radically inclusive approach, and traditional Judaism’s respect for that approach, is key to building the model of community that will realize that goal. I greatly appreciate that Rabbi Tucker addresses intermarriage with a realistic and respectful tone.

Michael Chabon Didn’t Go Too Far

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Noted author Michael Chabon spoke at the graduation of the Hebrew Union College Los Angeles campus on May 14. The JTA story is titled “Michael Chabon attacks Jewish inmarriage and Israel’s occupation in speech to new rabbis.” Ben Sales writes that Chabon “delivered a diatribe against Jewish inmarriage” and says he “once wanted his children to marry Jews, but now opposes the idea of Jewish endogamy.” He quotes Chabon as saying that “Endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two” and that intermarriage is “the source of all human greatness.” (Chabon actually said that “miscegenation” – the mixing of racial groups – is the source of all human greatness.)

I am probably as liberal as they come about Jews and intermarriage, but I’ve never said that inmarriage is a bad thing. If that is what Chabon said, I think he’s wrong. But I don’t think that’s what he said.

Sales quotes Chabon as saying “Any religion that relies on compulsory endogamy to survive has, in my view, ceased to make the case for its continued validity in the everyday lives of human beings.” I think it’s clear that what Chabon rejects is compulsion as to marriage partners. He doesn’t tell Jews they shouldn’t marry Jews. That would be just as compulsory, and just as misguided, as telling Jews they shouldn’t intermarry.

Chabon did say that he abhors homogeneity, insularity, and exclusion, and favors hybrids, complexity and diversity. But he explains the reason for his preferences is that division and boundaries ultimately can lead to the feeling that “we are not those people over there.” His real issue is that religious traditions have justified or prettified the dirty work of denying humans their humanity.

What he actually says about his hopes for his children are that they marry into the tribe that prizes skepticism, learning, inquiry and openness to new ideas, and enshrines equality before the law and human rights – and he says a fair number of the members of that tribe are likely to be Jews. He says that Judaism has reinvented itself over history by being mutable and flexible, and that could and must happen again.

The key adaptation, Chabon says, is to move outward, opening hearts and minds to those on the other side. In his charge to the HUC graduates, he urges them to knock down walls, find room in the Jewish community for all who want to share in our traditions, expand the protective circle of Jewish teachings around the “other,” and, yes, seize the opportunity to enrich the Jewish cultural genome by the changes that result from increased diversity – i.e., interfaith marriage.

I’d like to think that Michael Chabon is an advocate of the radical inclusion that is the subject of the book I am writing and expect to have published in the spring of 2019. My central thesis is that Jews and Jewish leaders and organizations need to adopt radically inclusive attitudes – treating interfaith couples as equal to Jewish-Jewish couples, and partners from different faith traditions as equal to Jews – and the radically inclusive policies that follow from those attitudes, supporting full and equal participation in Jewish life and community. Radical inclusion is the opposite of the compulsory endogamy Chabon rejects, and opens up to the “other” Jewish practices that offer ongoing validity for their lives.

A video of the speech is available in the JTA story. I encourage you to listen for yourself.

A Letter to the Leaders of Honeymoon Israel

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Dear Avi and Mike,

Congratulations on the great success of Honeymoon Israel described in your recent eJewishPhilanthropy article.  It is exciting to hear that 1,200 couples have gone on trips to Israel, that 700 more are scheduled to go this year, and that

Honeymoon Israel helps couples begin conversations between partners regarding how they will approach starting a Jewish family and to meet other, similar couples from the same city who are engaged in similar journeys and struggles.

[A]fter the trip… [c]ouples are building micro-communities with their Honeymoon Israel cohorts and are involved in book clubs, Hebrew classes, Jewish learning, social groups and more new Mom’s and Dad’s groups that we can count…. [O]ur goal is to co-construct an ecosystem for young Jewish families that is as vibrant as it is diverse.

Honeymoon Israel (HMI) is an outstanding program – may it continue to flourish. I’m concerned, though, that you feel the need to protest that HMI is not an “interfaith couples program” – the title of your article. After all, 70% of your participants are interfaith couples! It’s fantastic that HMI is attracting interfaith couples in proportion to their presence in the community – with the remaining 30% being inmarried couples, and 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying according to the Pew Report.  Many other Jewish programs, including Birthright Israel, realize that interfaith couples are their growth market and would love to have similar results.

But why do you say that you are not especially focused on interfaith couples? Why not affirmatively and even proudly say that Honeymoon Israel is an inclusive Jewish program that attracts predominantly interfaith couples? Why not say, “yes, Honeymoon Israel is an interfaith couples trip to Israel – and an inmarried couples trip to Israel, too?”

There are three premises in your article that deserve further discussion: that interfaith couples don’t consider themselves “interfaith,” that the partners aren’t really very different from each other, and that programs for interfaith couples “ghettoize” them.

You say that “most” of your couples do not refer to themselves as “interfaith” which is a “meaningless” term “to most of them.” If that is accurate, it is a huge change from the recent past. Others have said, as you do, that we need a better term than “interfaith” to describe these couples; I’ve often said that there isn’t a better term, and that most couples understand that it simply means partners coming from two different faith backgrounds.

You say that the couples simply “married another American with a somewhat different background.” That seriously minimizes the issues that different faith backgrounds can generate in the context of the couples’ prospective Jewish engagement.  After all, you acknowledge that Jewish organizations send messages “that belonging requires looking or behaving a certain way.” When HMI welcomes couples “as they are, with no expectation that a part of their lives might have to change or that other people in their lives need to be excluded,” for most couples that is “a new feeling.”

Another article in eJP the same day as yours, about an inclusive day school, makes the same point, when it highlights two interfaith couples who “acknowledged trepidation in their decision-making [about enrolling their children] – Would it be too Jewish? Would the fact that they are interfaith make them uncomfortable? Would they feel as though they belonged?”

And what about recent prominent use of the term “shiksa” – a term that we desperately need to get rid of? In an opinion column for the New York Times, no less, on a “tug of war over American values” between Jared Kusher and Ivanka Trump, on the one hand, and Joshua Kushner and Karlie Kloss, on the other, Maureen Dowd quotes a 2015 piece in the Forward by Margaret Abrams that refers to Kushner’s parents complaining about the  “WASP-worthy girls” and “shiksas” and pressuring them to convert.

You can’t have it both ways – you can’t say interfaith couples have understandably felt excluded by negative messages and at the same time say that interfaith couples don’t have differences and issues because they are interfaith that need to be addressed. So why do you feel the need to say that programs for interfaith couples “ghettoize” them and suggest they are not part of one community? The aim of those programs is in fact to integrate interfaith couples into Jewish life and Jewish communities. It’s great that HMI can be representative, not solely “for” interfaith couples, and still attract so many of them; that doesn’t mean that programs “for” interfaith couples aren’t also badly needed.

The most important news is that the obstacles to interfaith couples’ prospective Jewish engagement can be overcome by truly inclusive programs like Honeymoon Israel. But interfaith couples are going to continue to get exclusionary messages unless Jews and Jewish leaders and organizations are loudly and proudly inclusive of interfaith families.

Your article starts with a funder who told you that they weren’t in the “interfaith space,” and it ends with a reference to “more conservative elements” of the Jewish community being “nervous” about the Jewish community that Honeymoon Israel couples will build. There is a residual distaste for intermarriage that is still present among Jews and Jewish leaders, which continues to be a source of exclusionary messages. And there is a deafening silence among many others who don’t want to talk about or affirmatively intermarriage.

I would encourage you to say that Honeymoon Israel is a program for interfaith couples – as well as for all couples, and that interfaith couples have issues because of their different faith backgrounds that need to and can be addressed by a range of inclusive programmatic efforts to facilitate their engagement.

You are running a great program and I hope it continues to grow,

Ed

Ignorant of Intermarriage? Ignoring Intermarriage?

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I loved Rebecca Ennen’s piece in the Forward, How Can Jewish Leaders Be So Ignorant About Intermarriage?  It’s refreshing to see a 35-year old child of intermarried parents, who works in a Jewish organization and is raising a Jewish child, forcefully explain how Jewish leaders talk about interfaith families “in ways that are frankly ignorant” and call to “hear more from intermarried people and from Jews proud of our mixed backgrounds.” Ennen says the messages from Jewish engagement programs often “are clear and damaging: intermarried families are second-rate, and it’s best to conceal your non-Jewish heritage. What if, instead, we based our ‘welcoming’ programs on the insights of people in and from interfaith families? What if Jews like me were elevated to leadership not despite our families but because of them?” It’s a perspective Jewish leaders would be wise to consider.

I also loved I’ll Take the Wheel, Thanks by Olufemi Sowemimo who talks about falling away from the religion of his upbringing and looking forward to making new traditions with his fiancé, Becky Herring, associate director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta.

Passover and Easter 2018

There were many stories about interfaith families and the overlap of Passover and Easter this year. Samira Mehta, who has written a new book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States, wrote an excellent summary of the issues. Other articles with personal examples include Families celebrating both Passover and Easter this weekend say inclusion is key; Interfaith couples blend Passover and Easter traditions; How To Celebrate Easter As An Interfaith Family; and Communication key to interfaith couples celebrating holidays.

I have an issue with articles in the Jewish media about diversity and inclusion that do not mention interfaith families and partners from different faith traditions specifically. One mild example is an excellent piece by Brad Hirschfield, co-president of Clal. In an essay titled “How To Embrace Diversity at Your Seder,” he asks what we can’t have a Passover seder without, and suggests that “we cannot have a seder without genuinely different types of people at the table.” I would have liked to see interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions explicitly mentioned, but the principle spelled out in the piece clearly applies.

A worse example is 5 Reasons That Passover Is The Festival Of Inclusion. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favor of including people with disabilities in Jewish life and communities, and this is an excellent article to support that kind of inclusion. But it often feels like the inclusion agenda has been hijacked by that cause. Just consider the topic headings in the article: recognition of diversity amongst us; making space for outsiders; we were slaves; differences must be accommodated; and ensuring full participation by all. “If we want to act as a family or a Jewish community, we must practice inclusion all year round.” “Every Jew must have an equal and equally participatory place at the table – independent of any difference that may be perceived.” Couldn’t we say “every Jewishly engaged person” should have an equal and equally participatory place at the table?

More Conservative News

The Conservative movement isn’t ignoring intermarriage, far from it. A great update by Ben Sales for JTA, Conservative Judaism’s leadership turns over. Will intermarriage policy be next?  reports that not only are the heads of the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly stepping down from their positions, but for the first time in years there will be a contested election for vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, with a rabbi considered relatively liberal on intermarriage issues being challenged by one more conservative. (Ari Feldman at the Forward broke the story on the election challenge.) And Rabbi Philip Graubart raises another thoughtful perspective when he questions whether the central concept of covenantal loyalty is removed from “the reality of how American Judaism is lived today.” “Covenant implies a collection of people acting together. But what happens when the great majority aren’t behaving the way we want them to behave? Can there be a covenant without a congregation?”

Intermarriage and Jewish Philanthropy

Jack Wertheimer, who has been very critical of intermarriage, wrote a report on American Jewish philanthropy for the Avi Chai Foundation and a summary for JTA, ‘Engaging’ millennials is all the rage. But is it the best use of Jewish philanthropy? The report is sprinkled with comments expressing concern about intermarriage, including “Given the high rates of intermarriage and assimilation as the generations pass, some of the foundations most committed to contributing to Jewish life turn their backs on Jewish needs.” and “the disinclination of younger Jews to support the large Jewish organizations or in many cases see merit in funding any Jewish causes engenders concern about the future of Jewish giving; so too do high rates of intermarriage, which often lead to alienation from Jewish life.” On the other hand, it mentions funders who prefer to support engagement, including:

Meanwhile, a whole industry had cropped up in response to the massive upsurge of intermarriage. Hoping to draw intermarried families into Jewish life, funders have invested in a range of new programs specially designed to address their perceived needs. Among the new initiatives are free trips to Israel for recently married intermarried couples sponsored by Honeymoon Israel and free Friday evening meals to teach such couples and singles how to welcome the Sabbath (sponsored by OneTable). Others are designed to help intermarried families meet with one another to discuss the challenges they face.

In an important comment on the report, Sandy Cardin, president of the Schusterman Foundation, suggests he’d like to see more discussion of the impact of intermarriage:

[O]ne trend I had hoped Jack would focus on is how big givers are addressing the demographic changes taking place in American Jewish life, especially outside the Orthodox communities. Relatively little appears in his closing recommendations about the extent to which young Jewish adults are marrying and partnering with members of other faith communities (or of no faith community at all). I would be very interested to read his views on both sides of the equation: how does Jack think these demographic shifts will affect large givers in the Jewish community and how does he think major gifts by Jewish philanthropists will affect this fundamental change in American Jewish life?

My Take on the Jewish Man’s Rebellion

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There’s been a media storm over the March 29 Washington Post essay, “I am tired of being a Jewish man’s rebellion,” in which Carey Purcell, a self-described “WASP,” suggests two Jewish men dated her as a “last act of defiance against cultural or familial expectations before finding someone who warranted their parents’ approval.” Roundly criticized for outdated stereotypes bordering on the anti-Semitic (as well, I would add, as anti-WASP), Purcell posted an apology on her website.

I didn’t like Purcell’s essay because I’ve never liked it when people explain why relationships succeed or fail because of abstract considerations. One of the best comments I saw was by Danielle Tcholakian in the Forward: “Compatibility is a weird sort of witchcraft, some sort of strange ephemeral thing that somehow makes you less annoyed by one person’s annoying traits than you are by most other humans.”

Without getting into all of the details of Purcell’s story which have been amply and repeatedly recited, the worst comment I saw was by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in the Forward. She criticizes Purcell’s complaint about the boyfriend breaking up with her by defending “a community’s – and religion’s – desperate attempts to stay afloat over centuries of Diaspora living.” It’s offensive to suggest that interfaith relationships threaten the Jewish community and Judaism’s “staying afloat.”

As Susan Katz Miller was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article as saying: “There is significant statistical evidence for thriving, successful interfaith families in America, and that should be the story, not an unfortunate, somewhat neurotic personal experience.”

The most important response was My Fellow Non-Jewish Women: Stop Blaming The Jews For Your Failed Relationships. It’s too bad the writer felt the need to be anonymous.  She tells how she had a Jewish boyfriend who broke up with her because she was not Jewish. He told her she would never be “accepted by the community;” his parents pressured him and threatened to cut him off financially and were so ashamed that she was kept a secret from their family, and she was told this would continue even if she converted.

Unlike Purcell, however, she doesn’t blame some abstract considerations or generalized phenomenon about Jewish men; she blames her boyfriend’s “immaturity, the unhealthy behaviors he employed and his emotionally manipulative family.” But better yet, she is currently dating a Jewish man who is mature, respectful, communicative and kind:

On Sunday, when he kindly joined me for Easter service, I saw the other couples worshipping together and felt no different. When we attend his extended family’s belated Passover Seder this weekend, we will celebrate the holiday just as so many other couples have the past few days. We will recommit ourselves to our shared values of aiding the oppressed and giving respect to those who paved the way for us.

The attitudes demonstrated by the anonymous writer and her Jewish boyfriend and his family  are the kind of attitudes that will do more than keep the Jewish community and Judaism “afloat” – they’ll enable it to thrive into the future.