Remembering My Father

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My father, Lewis Case, died in February, one day after his 101st birthday. He lived a very long, very full and very good life. He was a model of devotion to my mother – they were married for almost 72 years when she died four years ago. He was a very supportive father to my brother and me, and to our wives. Nothing made him happier than being with or hearing about his four grandchildren and their spouses and children.

My father was the child of immigrants – his mother and father came from eastern Europe as teenagers, and his mother, my grandmother, read and wrote in Yiddish, not English. My father was a model of the American Dream – he went to veterinary school, served in the Army Veterinary Corps in China and India during World War II, and became a successful professional, the president of the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association.

My father was a model of what immigrants can do for our country. Jews of my generation remember their grandparents and have some connection to what being immigrants means; my children and people in their generation are so Americanized they don’t have that experience.

At my father’s high school in Hartford, there were many Italians, Poles, and Irish, but all of my father’s friends were Jews. The idea of marrying someone not Jewish was probably inconceivable to him or my mother; between 1940 and 1960, only 6% of Jews intermarried.

Because veterinarians in those days didn’t compete with each other and there was already a veterinarian in West Hartford where most of the Jews were moving, we lived in Wethersfield, where there were very few Jews. While my parents continued to socialize almost exclusively with their Jewish friends, and while I went to Hebrew school in West Hartford, hardly any of the friends I saw every day in school were Jewish.

It’s a well-known phenomenon that successive generations of immigrants tend to branch out from their own ethnic group, and that happened in my family – much to the chagrin of my father. He was extremely disappointed that I would chose to love someone of a different faith, and Wendy and I had a tortured six-year courtship because our relationship was interfaith.

But my father was also a model of how a parent can chose both to love his child and to see his tradition maintained. When Wendy and I decided to marry, my father and mother decided they were not going to lose me, and he did not intrude or ever say “you should” about anything related to religion. Instead, in what I would call an early instance of a radically inclusive attitude, he chose to love Wendy as his own daughter. His welcoming embrace enabled Wendy and I to create a Jewish family, and our children in turn to do the same. And the last thing Wendy said to him was that he would always be in her heart, just like her own parents are.

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have had my father in my life. May his memory always be for a blessing.

Important New Community Studies

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The Washington DC and San Francisco Federations have announced important community studies that include a great deal of important information about interfaith families’ Jewish engagement. The complete DC study is available; a PowerPoint presentation and highlights of the San Francisco study are available.

The DC study has a very helpful summary about who is considered Jewish for purposes of the study:

Recent Jewish population studies, such as Pew Research Center’s 2013 A Portrait of Jewish Americans, classify respondents according to their responses to a series of screening questions: What is your religion? Do you consider yourself to be Jewish aside from religion? Were either of your parents Jewish? Were you raised Jewish? On the basis of the answers to these questions, Jews have been categorized as “Jews by religion” (JBR), if they respond to a question about religion by stating that they are solely Jewish or “Jews of no religion” (JNR), if they state that they have no religion, but they consider themselves Jewish in another way. Although Jews by religion as a group are more engaged with Judaism than are Jews of no religion, many JBRs and JNRs look similar when examining Jewish behaviors and attitudes.

The San Francisco study appears to use the same definitions. The DC study does add an interesting variant: it includes in the Jewish population adults who indicate that they are Jewish and another religion, a category it refers to as Jews of multiple religions (JMR). Of 175,900 Jewish adults in the DC area, 19,400, or 9%, identify as Jews of multiple religions. The report also notes that 10% of the 51,500 Jewish children living in Jewish households are being raised Jewish and something else.

The amount of intermarriage continues to extremely high. In Washington DC, 53% of married or partnered couples are intermarried (47% of couples are in-married, including 6% with partners who converted to Judaism). Younger married or partnered Jews are increasingly intermarried (or inter-partnered; hereafter I’ll just say “intermarried”); the percentage of married Jews who are intermarried is 61% of those who are 18 to 29, 50% of those who are 30-39, 48% of those who are 40-49, 43% of those who are 50-65, and 36% of those 65 and older. Intermarriage is even greater among LGBTQ Jews – 67% (62% of married or partnered Jews of color are intermarried).

The San Francisco study uses a new term, “inter-group,” to refer to intermarried and inter-partnered couples. In San Francisco, 54% of married or partnered respondents have a spouse or partner who is not Jewish (compared to DC’s 53%), and as in DC, younger married or partnered respondents are increasingly intermarried: 66% of those who are 18 to 34, 59% of those who are 35-49, 52% of those who are 50-64, and 42% of those who are 65 and older.

The DC study reports that almost half (48%) of children in Jewish households are being raised by intermarried parents. In a promising finding, the report says that since 2003, the percentage of children being raised exclusively Jewish by intermarried parents has increased from 45% to 61% (19% Jewish by religion and 42% culturally Jewish. Another 14% of children with intermarried parents are being raised Jewish and another religion, which the report includes as “raised Jewish in some way,” so that 75% of children with intermarried parents are raised Jewish in some way. Only 1% of children with intermarried parents are being raised in a different religion entirely. The report also notes that there are 2,200 non-Jewish children living in Jewish households whose parents have not yet decided on their religion.

The San Francisco data that is available to date does not have percentage breakdowns of how interfaith couples are raising their children religiously. The slides say that only 26% of “inter-group” couples are raising their children “fully” Jewish. The slides include a bar graph; it looks to me like 26% of respondents said Jewish, about 34% said partly Jewish, about 22% said not Jewish, about 15% said haven’t decided, and about 5% said other. It will be interesting to see the actual figures when they are released. At this point I’m at a loss to understand how, with similar amounts of intermarriage in the two communities, the ways that interfaith couples in the two communities are raising their children religiously vary so significantly.

In the DC study, on various measures of Jewish engagement, including participation in formal and informal Jewish education, synagogue membership, holiday participation, and connection to Israel, the intermarried score lower than the inmarried. For example: only 14% of children of intermarried parents attend part-time religious school, compared to 43% of children of inmarried parents; only 11% attend Jewish summer camp, compared to 23% of children of inmarried parents; 14% of intermarried households are synagogue members compared to 48% of inmarried households. The San Francisco study slides note that “In-group couples are much more active in Jewish life than inter-group couples.” There are bar graphs showing the different engagement measures, with no percentages available yet.

Demographic studies have always compared interfaith and inmarried couples on how children are raised religiously and on various measures of Jewish engagement. To me the data should serve as an incentive to increase efforts to engage interfaith couples. The San Francisco study makes an interesting point in that regard: 9% of “inter-group” couples are very interested and 48% are somewhat interested, in increasing their connection to being Jewish.

I believe that inclusive attitudes are key to those efforts being successful. The two studies offer interesting and quite different information about how welcome people in interfaith relationships feel in the Jewish community. The DC study notes that among those in interfaith relationships, 50% find the community to be somewhat (19%) or very (31%) welcoming (it did not ask the question of inmarried couples); the San Francisco study says that 75% of “inter-group” couples feel somewhat (37%) or very (38%) welcome at Jewish activities, not much different from “in-group” couples (31% somewhat and 51% very).

I don’t know why feelings of being welcome would differ so much between the two communities. The questions weren’t all that different: The DC survey asked: “Overall, in your opinion, how welcoming is the Metropolitan DC Jewish community to interfaith families?” Possible answers were not at all, a little, somewhat, very much, or no opinion.  The San Francisco study asked, “How welcome or unwelcome do you feel attending events and activities sponsored by Jewish congregations, groups and other organizations?” Possible answers were very welcome, somewhat welcome, somewhat unwelcome, very unwelcome, it depends/varies, don’t know/have mixed feelings.

It is interesting that the DC study found that LGBTQ individuals find the community more welcoming to them, than interfaith couples do: 64% of LGBTQ individuals find the community to be somewhat (15%) or very (49%) welcoming to GLB individuals. Intermarried LGBTQ individuals are in between: 63% say the community is somewhat (26%) or very (37%) welcoming to GLB individuals.

It’s also interesting that the DC study notes that 33% of intermarried respondents said they felt somewhat or very much like an outsider at religious services, compared to 22% of inmarried respondents.

The DC study mentions and includes some open-ended comments, something that I think enhances the value of the information very much. The study notes that “68 respondents in interfaith relationships reported ways that the community made them feel unwelcome” and includes three comments from people in interfaith relationships, including “I could use programs that address people, like me, who feel like outsiders in the Jewish community,” “I just want to be comfortable bringing my interfaith partner to events without him feeling pressured,” and,

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

In other related news: the Forward has a very important article, based in part on the San Francisco community study, about young Jews becoming ambivalent about or unsupportive of Israel. I was very pleased to see that intermarriage is not blamed. Steven M. Cohen is quoted as saying that the reasons young Jews are moving towards a more neutral position about Israel are that they are defining their identity in less ethnic terms (with Israel falling “in the ethnic compartment”), and Israeli policies are alienating to political liberals.

Also, perhaps in connection with Valentine’s Day, the Pew Research Center issued an updated 8 Facts about Love and Marriage in America. Among other points: 88% say love is a very important reason to marry, while only 30% say having their relationship recognized in a religious ceremony is an important reason; 17% of newlyweds in 2015 were married to someone of different race or ethnicity, an increase from 3% in 1967; 39% of those who married since 2010 have a spouse from a different religious group, up from 19% of those who married before 1960.

Variations on Inclusion

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I loved Rabbi Deborah Waxman’s explanation of why the Reconstructionist movement  rebranded itself as “Reconstructing Judaism,” including her statement that “A critical path forward is shifting from a focus on ‘being’ Jewish – important but insufficient for providing substance and structure – to a focus on ‘doing’ Jewish.” That shift in focus is a fundamental basis of a radically inclusive approach to interfaith families, and it’s not surprising that Rabbi Waxman also says, “Let’s make sure our children can tell their non-Jewish friends, family members and life partners how Jewish organizations opened pathways to engagement.”

There’s been more ferment in the Conservative movement about intermarriage. In Jews Should Have Taught Our Children How To Intermarry, Philip Graubart, a Conservative rabbi who is now the “Chief Jewish Officer” at a day school in San Diego, relates that thirty years ago his father, also a Conservative rabbi, took the position that “we need to imbue young Jews with enough self-confidence and pride that even if (or, really when) they intermarry, they’ll insist on raising their kids as Jews.” Graubart says his father was correct:

None of the dating schemes or the refusals to officiate, or pushing away the non-Jewish spouses during bar-bat mitzvah ceremonies, or the sometimes complex conditions some rabbis put on intermarried couples — take these classes, perform these rituals, structure the ceremony in these ways, stand here during this ceremony, but not here; say this, but not this — made a dent in what we now recognize was inevitable. In a free and prosperous country, Jews are going to meet and marry non-Jews in large numbers, no matter we do.

But Graubart says his father did not go far enough:

Rather than refusing to officiate at intermarriages, we should have insisted that we were exactly who these couples needed to sanctify their union, without conditions. At least then, Jewish spirituality would have had a voice and role in the most important day in the lives of a generation of young Jews (and many non-Jews). Instead of rejecting their most important and intimate decision, we could have helped them celebrate, and kept them close. But we pushed them away.

Graubart says the issue is larger than intermarriage – it is what to think about and how to live with those who are not Jewish. The attitudes that have “colored all our thinking about intermarriage” are that they “threaten us physically. Or they engage in non-Jewish practices which tempt us. Or, more subtly, they threaten our distinctive identity. They come too close, sometimes into the very walls of our synagogue, or on the bimah.” Graubart says things have changed, “non-Jews” (his term) are a crucial part of our Jewish community, and

[O]f course, many of the non-Jews now married to Jews take the lead in creating Jewish moments for their kids. Imagine what they would have done if, instead of rejecting them on the most important day of their lives, we embraced them. It’s probably time to start.

In the meantime, Josh Nathan-Kazis reported for the Forward that a little more than a year ago, a young Conservative rabbi discovered that the Conservative movement never officially adopted its ban on blessing intermarriages, that the movement’s response was to convene a secret commission, and that the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) (the association of Conservative rabbis) recently adopted the commission’s recommendation with “new language for the rules that reaffirm most of the ban on blessing intermarriages.” The RA has also had a rule that Conservative rabbis could not attend interfaith weddings; the commission apparently reported that the RA had not enforced that rule and suggested “the beginning of a process that could allow rabbis to attend them without sanction.”

The article notes that while some “insiders” knew that the rule against attendance was not enforced, other rabbis complied with the rule at great personal expense, including not attending weddings of family members; Nathan-Kazis had a follow-up article titled Saddened Rabbis Learn They Could Have Gone to Loved Ones’ Interfaith Weddings.

Nathan-Kazis writes that some rabbis see the commission’s report, by opening up the standards and practices for discussion, “as a first step toward acceptance of intermarriage by the Conservative leadership.” Separately, Rabbi Graubart offers his take on the issue:

[I]s the debate over intermarriage really about rules?… Aren’t there other values at play — family, romance, intimacy, respect, kindness, tolerance, pluralism, freedom? Of course these questions lead me to similar inquiries about Conservative Judaism. Can a great religious movement really be reduced to a set of behaviors, or even a range of behaviors within a prescribed path? Isn’t there more to Conservative Judaism — more to Judaism — than Halacha?

I try not to say “non-Jew” any more, and would respectfully suggest to Rabbi Waxman and Rabbi Graubert that they consider not doing so either. I saw an interesting piece relating to another controversial term, “half-Jewish,” recently. In There’s No Such Thing As ‘Half-Jewish.’ It’s Simply ‘Jewish.’Alyssa Pinsker relates how as a child of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and after practicing Judaism for eleven years, “somehow I am always considered ‘half’.”

The position of the half-Jew is different from any other bicultural or biracial adult: One side is rejected by traditionalists, and the other by anti-Semites. Ask most Israelis, Conservative Jews and any Orthodox Jew, and they will quickly tell you that I am not Jewish. On the other hand, during a teaching stint in Switzerland, I lost my job due because I was practicing Judaism openly and talking about it; and with my Jewish background, I could never work in Saudi Arabia. This puts me -– and all other so-called “half Jews” — in a painful twilight zone, neither here nor there.

Pinsker is considering undergoing an Orthodox conversion “so that my children don’t have to go through what I went through.” In the meantime, she says, she’s “made my choice about who I am – despite the hardships, and regardless of whether or not I go through conversion down the road….I am just another Jew. Period.”

In other news, you might want to see:

  • A nice mention in the Forward of Hebrew College’s graduate certificate in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement led by Keren McGinity.
  • A great report on One Table that notes that 15% of hosts come from interfaith families.
  • A nice article on Base Hillel that notes that 13% of participants came from “non-Jewish” homes.
  • Yet another example of the Israeli attitude that intermarriage is the same as assimilation – with the wrinkle that Arab Members of the Knesset don’t want their children to marry Jews and be “assimilated.”

Revisiting the December Holidays

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As always at the end of the year there were a lot of stories about interfaith families and the December holidays. The topic has been covered so much that it’s hard to find much new. But Rabbi Matt Gewirtz’ Why Santa Brought The Rabbi’s Daughter a Gift was extraordinary. When his youngest daughter, who says she wants to be a rabbi, asked if Santa would visit her, and his older children called her a baby and said Santa isn’t real, he told her not to stop “believing what your heart tells you.” He leaves her a present with a note from “Santa” saying he “knew she was Jewish but she got a present because she believed in him.” Though concerned he was spiritually confusing his child, he decides that “Her relationship with the mythical was age-appropriate, helped her delve deeper into her sense of wonder,…[I]t was somehow about a connection to that which will ultimately make her feel safe and connected to the possibility of the unknown, to the potential for her to feel sure in the world of the mysterious.” I thought this was just the kind of wise and confident approach that we need more rabbis to take towards interfaith couples who celebrate Christmas.

I also loved Converts Are Constantly Asked If We Miss Christmas. It’s Complicated. The elements the author recalls with fondness are now attached to Shabbat and Hanukkah – “I continued to light candles, have gatherings with friends and family, sing special songs and give presents during the darkest days of December.” The author loved three classic Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Muppet Christmas Carol, but watching them again with “now-Jewish sensibilities” realizes that there is no Christian doctrine in any of them, and further that “those three stories are more about Yom Kippur than they are about Christmas,” given their sinful characters who face the truth about themselves and make commitments to living a different life. The author concludes, “No, I don’t miss Christmas, but I’ve repurposed a part of it to suit my Jewish life. Let me tell you about my favorite Yom Kippur movies…”

I liked two other personal stories about interfaith families whose Christmas celebrations don’t impair their Jewishness: in Holidays with the McDowells, a young man whose Jewish mother loves Christmas (with no Jesus) puts almost 100 Santas on display, while his Catholic father “in many ways has somehow out-Jewed his Jewish wife;” in The Hanukkah Tradition From My Christian Mother-in-Law, a Jewish woman gets a dreidel every year from her Christian mother-in-law.

I didn’t like How The O.C.’s Chrismukkah Became a Real Life Holiday. I’ve written several times that I don’t think that Chrismukkah, to the extent it means mushing two holidays together to make a new one, is a good idea. (Sorry to be a scrooge but I don’t think things like the “Santa Dreidel” are a good idea either.) (Or that the term “Christmasukah” is a welcome addition to the discussion, as in Christmasukah: Conservative synagogue members discuss their approach to interfaith challenges.) The author says that Chrismukkah “brilliantly combined each holiday’s best attributes,” is “an embrace of the reality of a hybrid identity,” and “the perfect outlet to navigate the tension of assimilation.” He says the three people raised in interfaith families he spoke with discussed the isolation and confusion they experienced during Christmas. But the family of one of the three treated the holidays as equals and didn’t fuse the two together.

There is still a way to go before Jews accept the idea that interfaith families can experience Christmas traditions without religious doctrine and can celebrate Christmas without undermining their children’s identity as wholly or partly Jewish. Maybe that’s why Rabbi Gewirtz’ story is so powerful, without even coming from an interfaith family. He reports that his daughter who for the time being still believes in Santa wants to be a rabbi when she grows up.

The Latest on Birthright Israel and Intermarriage

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The latest evaluation of Birthright Israel, Beyond 10 Days: Parents, Gender, Marriage and the Long-Term Impact of Birthright Israel, has important information and implications for intermarriage policy. The headline, as reported by Len Saxe, the leader of the Cohen Center team that did the evaluation, in a piece for the Forward, is that “Birthright’s alumni, compared to similar young Jews who did not participate in the program, are more highly connected to Israel, more likely to have a Jewish spouse and raise Jewish children, and more likely to be engaged in Jewish life.”

The study makes many interesting observations:

  • For much of the twentieth century, women were more likely to inmarry than men; today, among married Jewish adults under age 40, 20% of Jewish women have a Jewish spouse compared to 41% of Jewish men (p. 4).
  • Spousal conversion is relatively rare, less than 5% of Jewish women’s partners convert, and 16% of Jewish men’s partners (p. 13)

There are also extensive discussions on differences between men and women in terms of behaviors and impacts of Birthright.

I am most interested in the study’s findings on how children of interfaith couples are raised. The study reports that among intermarried Jewish men, 38% of Birthright participants are raising their first child Jewish, compared to 17% of non-participants; among intermarried Jewish women, participants and non-participants are “equally likely” to be 51% are raising their first child Jewish (51% of participants compared to 56% of non-participants, which the study says is not a statistically significant difference). To me, the influence Birthright apparently has on influencing participants to raise their children Jewish is its more important impact, even if limited to men as opposed to women.

The report notes that “those who are not raising their oldest child Jewish are most likely to be undecided or not raising their child in any particular religion” (58% of intermarried Jewish men participants and 44% of intermarried Jewish women participants) and that “For both men and women with non-Jewish spouses, the likelihood of raising their oldest child in another religion is less than 10%.” (p. 15)

It is a fine thing if more Birthright participants than non-participants marry other Jews, but if you invert the study’s information on rates of inmarriage, it is clear that there is extensive intermarriage among participants. That is especially true among participants who themselves have one Jewish parent. Thus:

  • 38% of all participants who are married are intermarried, compared to 56% of non-participants (because 62% of participants and 46% of non-participants are likely to have a Jewish spouse) (p. 12)
  • of men and women with two Jewish parents, 30% of participants who are married are intermarried (because 70% are likely to have a Jewish spouse), compared to 45% of non-participants (p. 14); for men, 24% are intermarried, for women, 37% (p. 13)
  • of men and women with one Jewish parents, 67% of participants who are married are intermarried (because 33% are likely to have a Jewish spouse), compared to 80% of non-participants (p. 14)

These high levels of intermarriage will continue as more and more young adults with one Jewish parent participate in Birthright: the study notes that applicants with one Jewish parent have grown from less than 20% almost two decades ago to nearly 35% in 2017, and those applicants are still under-represented, given that half of Jewish millennials have one Jewish parent (p. 4).

This evaluation amply supports the continuing importance of making Birthright widely available, including especially to young adults with one Jewish parent. But I believe it supports the need for programmatic interventions aimed at interfaith families with young children and at new interfaith couples to support their Jewish engagement.

One of the most important conclusions of this and past Birthright evaluations is that interventions work: childhood experiences influence adult Jewish engagement, and “educational interventions have the capacity to continue shaping Jewish identity through multiple stages of development including the college and young adult years.” (p. 26) There is no reason that would not be the case for interventions aimed at interfaith couples before they have children and after they do.

The study aptly notes that strategies for engaging young adults with one Jewish parent or two Jewish parents “likely need to be tailored to their unique backgrounds” (p. 26), which I believe supports the need for programming that is targeted to young adults with one Jewish parent as well as to interfaith couples and families. Saxe notes in his Forward piece that developing Jewish identity requires experiences as well as knowledge and the central role of having those experiences as part of a Jewish group; that fully applies to designing programming for new interfaith couples and for interfaith families that builds knowledge and brings them together for Jewish experiences.

Finally, to me there is huge potential in the 58% of intermarried Jewish men participants and 44% of intermarried Jewish women participants who are raising their first child as “None, Undecided” – to say nothing of the 72% of men and 35% of women non-participants who are doing the same.

Inclusion as a New Year Begins

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Charlene Seidle, an important funder, in Five 2018 Jewish Philanthropy Trends To Watch, refers to “positive opportunities to meet our constituents where they are, in innovative ways that resonate with their needs and interests.” She continues:

Judaism is our competitive advantage, and 2018 is the year to use Jewish wisdom to its full and vibrant extent. This will not happen by drawing lines in the sand, but rather by being radically welcoming and giving people of all interests and backgrounds the chance to produce, consume, revive for themselves, speak up, speak out and “pray with their feet.” If we don’t, the existential crisis will not be their rejection of all that’s righteous, but rather the dire loss of talent that the Jewish community will suffer through our rejection of those who don’t look and feel exactly like “we” do (whoever “we” is these days).

I love the reference to “radical welcoming” and agree about the dire loss of talent that rejection generates. I love that Seidle refers to Jews of Color as an example, noting they represent 20% of the Jewish community and that “if we were fully inclusive, Jewish convenings like the GA, URJ Biennial, Jewish Funders Network and others would include scores of non-white Jews. What an opportunity to form new friendships and benefit from the diverse experiences which contribute to innovation and reinvention in lasting ways.”

But I can’t help but note that if we were fully inclusive of interfaith families and partners from different faith traditions, who represent 50% of the Jewish community and even more of the liberal Jewish community, that would really “make 2018 the year of bold Jewish philanthropic vision and action.”

When the Forward asked twenty rabbis Where Do You See the Jewish Community in 50 Years,  two responses related to that need for inclusion: Reform Rabbi Denise Eger, former head of the CCAR, saidThere are more Jews leaving the formal attachments to the Jewish community because the structures of the community are not in touch with where the Jewish people are really at,” and Reconstructionist Rabbi Nina Mandel said “My hope is that in 50 years, the global Jewish communities will be embracing the diversity of practice, region, ethnicity and peoplehood.”

The top story in the New York Jewish Week’s Stories to Watch in 2018 is “Rabbis Officiating at Intermarriages:” “As intermarriage increases in this country, the willingness of rabbis to officiate at interfaith marriages is becoming a topic of growing interest, especially in the Conservative movement… 2018 could prove to be a pivotal year in the debate.” The Jewish Week suggests that processes and decisions by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie and congregation B’nai Jeshurun perhaps provide “a blueprint for others wishing to find some way to support interfaith unions.” There was an interesting story in the Wisconsin Jewish newspaper, Local synagogues work to welcome interfaith families, about increasing welcome to interfaith families, including rabbis who have started to officiate for interfaith couples, as well as anecdotal data on apparently increasing instances of conversion. This will clearly be an important continuing story in the new year.

In “’Interfaith’ term rings hollow for some Jews” Holly Lebowitz Rossi, reporting on a panel at the URJ Biennial for the Religion News Service, writes that Jewish communities are “more supportive and inclusive than in previous generations” but the “language of this inclusion effort matters” to interfaith families. Rossi quotes InterfaithFamily’s Jodi Bromberg recommending that Jewish communities stop using the term “non-Jew.” She also quotes a rabbi who says the term “interfaith” isn’t accurate and prefers “families where individuals come from different faith backgrounds.” But I agree with Susan Katz Miller, also quoted in the article, that the term “interfaith” “works for families that have chosen to practice only Judaism, as well as those that maintain both parents’ traditions.” The article has one other very interesting comment by a lay person at the biennial, who distinguished welcoming and inclusive: “Welcoming makes you feel like you’re a guest, … Inclusion is, ‘you belong here.’”

Let’s hope that 2018 does become a year of inclusion and bold philanthropic vision and action toward that end.

Welcome Back, URJ!

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The Reform movement made a very important announcement last night, the launch of RJ Connect, which has the potential to engage many more interfaith couples and families in Jewish life.

The Reform movement originated what used to be called “outreach” to interfaith families back in the 1980s. The movement had a pioneering outreach department that at its high point had a part-time regional outreach director in the movement’s fourteen regions around the country. The outreach staff were exceptionally warm, embracing, talented and hardworking ambassadors who helped congregations to be more welcoming and to offer programs, including the Yours, Mine and Ours workshop that helped new couples learn to talk and make decisions about having religious traditions together.

Sadly in 2003, the outreach department was dismantled, reportedly for financial reasons. I heard at the time a view that if interfaith families were going to join synagogue, they would gravitate towards Reform synagogues, so no special outreach efforts were needed.

In 2007 InterfaithFamily started an officiation referral service to help interfaith couples find rabbis to officiate or co-officiate at their weddings. In the ten years since, InterfaithFamily responded to probably more than 15,000 referral requests. In 2011, InterfaithFamily launched its Your Community initiative, with staff rabbis in communities around the country offering a range of services and programs, including workshops/discussion groups/meet-ups for new couples.

It is very affirming to see the Reform movement come back with its huge resources to once again offer services and programs explicitly aimed at reaching and engaging interfaith families. RJ Connect will apparently include an officiation referral service that will help couples – including but not limited to interfaith couples – to find rabbis and cantors – limited to Reform rabbis and cantors – to officiate. RJ Connect will also in some fashion offer the Yours, Mine and Ours program for interfaith couples. These are very promising initiatives and a welcome addition to existing efforts that include and reach beyond Reform clergy and congregations.

The URJ announced that Rabbi Julie Zupan will be RJ Connect Director – I want to personally congratulate Julie, who has done a wonderful job as director of Reform Jewish Outreach Boston. I send her very best wishes for success in her new very big job with very big potential.

Growing Inclusivity

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The intermarriage news since the High Holidays has continued to be positive for the most part. I was especially pleased to read Rabbi Micah Streiffer’s Yom Kippur sermon announcing that he was going to start officiating at weddings for interfaith couples. I say “especially” because Rabbi Streiffer is in Toronto, Canada and as far as I know he is the first Reform rabbi there to officiate. I remember many years when InterfaithFamily was not able to refer people in Toronto to any “mainstream” rabbis, so this is a welcome breakthrough.

I also say “especially” because Rabbi Streiffer cites the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion in which Moses says that everyone present is entering into the covenant with God – and Rabbi Streiffer explicitly says that includes “the ger, the non-Jew.” That’s an argument I first made back in 2000. It’s very affirming to have a rabbi endorse of that view. It’s an exemplary inclusive sermon that is well worth reading.

A second great item was an article by InterfaithFamily’s Stacie Garnett-Cook, Interfaith Inclusion: One Year to Lasting Change, who asked, “What should an organization actually do to become more inclusive? Many organizations say that they are welcoming, but do our actions and words match our intentions?” InterfaithFamily’s new Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI), modeled on the Keshet Leadership Project and funded by the Covenant Foundation, supports leaders in organizations who create and implement action plans to accomplish those goals. The article describes the program design and underlying theory, as well as the organizations that participated in the first year.

The importance of being truly inclusive in attracting and engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community can’t be over-estimated. I hope many more Jewish organization will seriously consider participating in this initiative.

I was honored to be included in Moment Magazine’s Symposium, Is Intermarriage Good for the Jews? (If you want to know how I looked at 24, take a look at my wedding photo – my 7-year old grandson said I looked “young” – and I assure you that the tie I was wearing was very fashionable at the time!) Marilyn Cooper did a great job putting together very diverse views; reading all of them carefully left me feeling, well, that there are very diverse views. I was the only person who actually said there are many strong arguments why intermarriage is good for Jews. Keren McGinity also expressed a positive view:

Provided that intermarried Jews and their families are treated equally as inmarried families, and that Jewish education is accessible and engaging, intermarriage can be an opportunity for Jews and their loved ones to draw closer to Judaism and the Jewish community.

Several contributors, including Bob Davis, A. J. Jacobs and Naomi Schaefer Riley, saw increased tolerance as a positive impact of intermarriage. Rabbis Matalon and Lau-Lavie, who are pushing the Conservative movement’s boundaries on officiation, offer very realistic assessments that I thought were optimistic about engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

But there were several expressions of quite negative views. In upholding the movement’s ban on officiation, I respectfully think Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is wrong to say that officiating at interfaith marriages does not help the Jewish people, and that “Reform rabbis have been doing this for quite a while and, for the most part, they have not succeeded in convincing the intermarried couples to be actively Jewish.” I think that is an untenable position given the research I’ve mentioned many times that shows correlation between officiation and later synagogue membership and raising children as Jews.

Two Orthodox perspectives insisted on opposing intermarriage, one saying “intermarriage is heartbreaking.” Sarina Roffe was most extreme: “Every time someone marries out, a whole generation of Jewish people is gone.” She comes from the Syrian Jewish community, which she says rejects not only those who intermarry, but even those who marry Orthodox converts.

I was puzzled by Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel, who says that if he had intermarried, “experiences that I currently derive tremendous meaning from would be missing.” I say puzzled because there is no reason why the experiences he mentions – saying Kaddish for a parent, preparing a son for his bar mitzvah, and watching a daughter learn Hebrew – have to be missing in intermarried families.

The Forward also published We asked 22 rabbis: Is intermarriage a problem or an opportunity which offered a not dissimilar set of diverse views. Susan Katz Miller had an interesting take on the piece, criticizing the sample for being half Orthodox rabbis (when the Orthodox are 10% of the population) and only two Reform, and the “corrosive” content of many of the responses. She correctly points out that interfaith families reading many of the opinions will not feel welcomed or included.

I was struck, however, by responses from two wonderful Orthodox rabbis, Shmuly Yanklowitz and Avram Mlotek, who did emphasize inclusivity. Rabbi Yanklowitz said, “With the proper inclusive programming and outreach opportunities, there are ways to make interfaith families feel welcome in the community, which will, in turn, spark interest in creating and perpetuating loving Jewish households.” Rabbi Mlotek said, “If our Jewish communities seek to be relevant religious centers for the 70% of American Jews who choose to intermarry, it is incumbent upon us to welcome these families unabashedly and work with them as they strive to build Jewish homes.”

Finally in the continuing discussion about Conservative rabbis and officiation, there is items. Letter Reignites Interfaith Officiation Debate refers to a letter by four Conservative leaders that re-affirms the ban on officiating for interfaith couples, but does talk at length about welcoming them. Conservative Jewish Leaders Are Endangering Their Brand is an opinion by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall who objects to the letter’s statement that the intermarried should be welcomed with “equally open arms.” Kwall wants to retain the Conservative brand’s strong preference for in-marriage — that’s a non-inclusive approach that I believe can only lead to decline.

Letters in the Scroll

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I hope your Jewish holidays this year were good. Despite all of the bad news in the world, my holidays were excellent. They ended with the first grade consecration of my oldest grandchild on erev Simchat Torah at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts. The rabbi had all of the children present at the service sit cross-legged on both sides of the center aisle of the sanctuary and rolled out two Torah scrolls with the children holding them off the floor while the end of one and the beginning of the other were read; the look of awe on my grandson’s face was wonderful to see. I wish all of the people who say that the grandchildren and children of intermarriage won’t be Jewish could have seen it.

My holidays began on an equal high, and that’s saying a lot. Rabbi Allison Berry of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts gave a truly wonderful sermon, The View From Mt. Sinai – Building Our Inclusive Community. Recalling Jewish tradition that the people gathered at Mt. Sinai included generations past and future, she said “I was at Mt. Sinai. I was there, and so were you.” She said “all of us were part of the … chain of tradition.” And then she made  explicit who she was talking about, mentioning first by name the parents and children of an interfaith family (before mentioning her adopted Korean-American sister, an upcoming Bat Mitzvah who uses sign language, seniors and transgender people). Noting that nearly half of the Temple’s religious school students come from interfaith families, she said “you are part of us. We appreciate the many ways you expand what it means to be Jewish…. We are honored you have chosen this community.”

Rabbi Berry is a rabbi who “gets it.” I wish the critics of intermarriage who say the Jewish community is already plenty welcoming to interfaith families would take this to heart: “I’ve learned from experience there is a tremendous difference between being a welcoming community and being a community that actually includes. We need to allow our perceptions and assumptions to be challenged. We need to be vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable. We need to be aware that language has the power to include or exclude.”

I was especially moved when Rabbi Berry quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as saying “The Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah [Torah scroll], and each of us is one of its letters.” While Rabbi Sacks is a brilliant Jewish scholar and teacher, he is a harsh critic of intermarriage; one of his many books, Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren, suggests he would be surprised that my grandson was just consecrated, and I don’t think he would say there are letters in the Torah for intermarried partners from different faith traditions, or for the children of mothers who are not Jewish. But Rabbi Berry does. She said that “Somewhere embedded on the scrolls behind me, in our ark, is the letter containing” the story of the interfaith family she first mentioned;

Together these letters of Torah construct our history and our future. They are an expression of our joys, sorrows, and moments of transcendence. When we leave people out or do not see those asking to be allowed in, we lose letters vital to the integrity of our Torah. When we build sacred, inclusive community we stand together as envisioned at Sinai….

We need more rabbis like Rabbi Berry whose deep-seated attitude is that there are letters in the Torah not just for every Jew, but for every Jewishly-engaged person.

It was quiet on the intermarriage front during the holidays. I was very pleased to be quoted in a great JTA story about How Mark Zuckerberg Is Embracing His Judaism; I had said in my last blog post, after Zuckerberg’s Facebook post that he had given his grandfather’s Kiddush cup to his daughter, that “The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.” I’d like to think there are letters in the Torah for Priscilla Chan and her children.

Before the holidays there was a lot of news about developments in the Conservative movement. The leaders of the movement just today came out with a statement that affirms the movement’s invitation to partners from different faith traditions to convert, its prohibition on rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples, and its desire to honor and include them:

It is a blessing that growing numbers of non-Jews are willing to see us as colleagues, neighbors, friends and even family…. We joyously include them and their families in the lives of our congregations and organizations, in our teaching of Torah, in our worship, in our social action. And we find ways to celebrate their marriage and love that honors their choice not to merge their identity with the people Israel by being present as pastors before the wedding, as rabbinic guides and companions after the wedding and as loving friends during the wedding period.

There is a lot that is positive in this language. But with all respect, the stated reasoning behind the officiation prohibition – “Honoring the integrity of both partners in a wedding, and for the sake of deepening faithful Jewish living” – is misguided, in my view. The partner from a different faith tradition who wants a rabbi to officiate isn’t dishonoring his or her integrity, and I believe it is clear that officiation leads to more faithful Jewish living, not less. They are saying, in effect, that that partner doesn’t have a letter in the Torah unless he or she converts.

Positive Outlooks Greet the New Year

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The discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating for interfaith couples has quieted, other than a terrible piece by one of the Cohen Center’s own researchers, that I blogged about separately. I’d rather focus on the positive responses to intermarriage as the High Holidays approach, and fortunately there is are five of them!

Back when Mark Zuckerberg was marrying Priscilla Chan, there were all sorts of derogatory comments from critics of intermarriage to the effect that his children would not be Jewish. So I was very pleased to see Zuckerberg’s Facebook posts showing him with his daughter in front of lit Shabbat candles, what looked like a home-baked Challah, and a message that he had given her his great-great-grandfather’s Kiddush cup. The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.

Second, Steven M. Cohen, in a new piece about declining number of Conservative and Reform Jews, says that arresting the decline “means encouraging more non-Jewish partners and spouses to convert to Judaism.” That’s not the positive news – the positive news is a much different response: the “radical welcoming” recommended by Rabbi Aaron Lerner, the UCLA Hillel executive director – a modern Orthodox rabbi, who grew up in an interfaith family himself. Rabbi Lerner writes that on college campuses, the intermarriage debate is already over – meaning that they regularly serve students who come from intermarried households, and sometimes those with only one Jewish grandparent, who they serve as long as they want to become part of their community in some way. Cohen could learn a thing or two from Rabbi Lerner:

Hillel and our Jewish community benefit enormously from that diversity.

Nobody can know for sure whether someone will grow into Judaism and Jewish life just because of their birth parents.

A Jewish student in an interfaith relationship may be inspired by our Shabbat dinners to keep that tradition for his entire life, no matter who he marries.

If these young students feel intrigued by Jewish learning, choose to identify with their Jewish lives and take on leadership roles in our community, they will be the ones shaping the future of Jewish life in America. But none of that happens if we don’t make them welcome and included members of our campus community… I understand the communal sensitivities to intermarriage. But it happens whether we like it or not. If we don’t give these young men and women a right to be part of our community, we risk losing them forever.

A third inclusive response is reported by Susan Katz Miller in a piece about PJ Library. She notes that PJ is inclusive – when it asked in its recent survey about Jewish engagement of subscribers, it asked if children were being raised Jewish or Jewish and something else; it also asked how important it was to parents that their children identify as all or partly Jewish. She reports being told that 50% of interfaith families in the survey said they were raising children Jewish and something else, and 45% Jewish only. She quotes Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, as saying ““This entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether it’s the exclusive religion in the home or not” she says. “If your family is looking for tools, and you’re going to present Judaism to your children, whether it’s the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.”

(There were other brief news items that are consistent with the value of an inclusive approach. The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent had a nice piece about interfaith families celebrating the High Holidays (featuring Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia), and the secular paper in Norfolk, Virginia had a nice article about Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill’s work with an interfaith couple. The national past president of the Reform movement’s youth group wrote an inspiring piece about how she discovered the Jew she is meant to be – revealing incidentally that she comes from an interfaith family. Batya Ungar-Sargon, the Forward opinion editor, notes the element of coercion in the Orthodox approach to continuity, with disavowal of coercion and embrace of freedom the point of being liberal. There’s also an interesting article in America, a Jesuit publication, When a Jew and a Catholic Marry. The author interviews four couples to illustrate different ways they engage with their religious traditions.)

In the fourth important item, Allison Darcy, a graduate student, asks Are Your Jewish Views on Intermarriage Racist? She had decided not to date people who weren’t Jewish because there was “too much pushback from the Jewish communities” in which she felt at home. A seminar on race theory prompted her to examine the implications of Jews’ prioritizing of in-marriage. For religious Jews who want to share their religion, it stems from a religious source; otherwise some amount of the conviction that Jews should marry Jews is based on ideas of racial purity.

It’s not a religious argument. It’s a racial one. It’s about keeping a people undiluted and preventing the adoption of other cultural traditions, which are clearly evil and out to usurp us. It’s a belief that it’s our duty to keep everyone else away, rather than to strengthen our own traditions so that they can stand equally and simultaneously with others. In my mind, it’s the easy way out.

Darcy acknowledges that the difference in Jewish engagement between children of in-married vs. intermarried parents – but aptly points to the Cohen Center’s study on millennials to say tha “by encouraging engagement with the community, we can near even this out.” Her conclusion: aside from religious-based objections,

This idea that intermarriage is dangerous is a judgment, pure and simple. It implies that other lifestyles are inferior, and that we ourselves aren’t strong enough to uphold our own. And at the end of the day, it’s racist to insist on marrying within your own race for no other reason than they are the same as you.

The fifth item – I was startled by this, given past pronouncements by the Jerusalem Post – is an editorial that takes the position that Israel should allow everyone the right to marry as they chose, not subject to the control of the Chief Rabbinate.

If at one time it was believed the State of Israel could be a vehicle for promoting Jewish continuity and discouraging intermarriage, this is no longer the case. We live in an era in which old conceptions of hierarchy and authority no longer apply. People demand personal autonomy, whether it be the right of a homosexual couple to affirm their love for one another through marriage or the right of a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Dragging the State of Israel into the intricacies of halacha is bad for personal freedom and bad for religion….

… Instead of investing time and energy in policing the boundaries of religious adherence, religious leaders should be thinking of creative ways to reach the hearts and minds of the unaffiliated.

… Those who care about adhering to the intricacies of halacha should, of course, have the right to investigate the Jewishness of their prospective spouse.

But for many Israelis, love – the sharing of common goals and values, including living a Jewish life as defined by the couple, and a mutual willingness to support and cherish – is enough.

The Jerusalem Post endorsing interfaith couples living Jewish lives as defined by the couples – now that is another great start to the new year. I hope yours is a sweet and meaningful one.