Interfaith Inclusion at the Biennials

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[Portions of this essay appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on February 4, 2020 under the title “Reconceptualizing Conversion.”]

Conflicting views about conversion were at the core of what was said – and not said – about interfaith inclusion at the recent biennial conventions of the Conservative and Reform movements.

With 84% of new households that include non-Orthodox Jews being interfaith, it clearly is essential to engage more of those couples if any liberal Jewish activity is to thrive in the future. Experts agree that people engage with a group if they feel included – that they belong. But many Jews think that if partners from different faith backgrounds want to belong, they can and should convert.

Holding up conversion as a condition to inclusion – a persistent view expressed at the biennials – is a bad strategy that will push more couples away at the outset. Instead, we should see conversion “for the right reasons, and at the right time” as an incidental possible future outcome of an approach of full inclusion without condition that will bring more couples in.

That interfaith inclusion was more of a focus at the United Synagogue/Rabbinical Assembly gathering represents a sea change. In the past when I would try to interest Conservative rabbis in InterfaithFamily’s work, most were standoffish because of our position on conversion: when I said it was a wonderful personal choice but if promoted too aggressively would turn people away, the typical reaction was “not good enough.”

With membership declining, attributed by most to the movement’s less than welcoming response to interfaith families, attitudes are changing. Over the past two years, the United Synagogue partnered with InterfaithFamily on a survey about welcoming interfaith families in Conservative synagogues, the subject of a well-attended biennial session.

The most striking development occurred when Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz delivered a passionate statement that Conservative rabbis should be permitted to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples who intend to raise their children Jewish. Rabbi Eliot Cosgrove advocated in response for standing by the sociological and halachic value of inmarriage, and positioning the Conservative movement as the movement of conversion. Acknowledging that many might not convert, he said it is not the movement’s responsibility to serve everyone or to risk standing for nothing.

Rabbi Gardenswartz had this to say about conversion:

It would be great if Christopher [the hypothetical partner of Rachel] would convert.  Conversion would clearly be our preferred option. We would move heaven and earth to encourage him to convert if he were open to it.  But here is what he says…. I love Rachel for who she is.  I want to be loved for who I am.  Maybe in time I might choose to convert, but I want to do it for the right reasons, and in the right time.  The right reason is that this is something that I want to do, that I am drawn to.   The right time is when I feel ready.  I don’t want to do it to make her parents happy, or to make clergy happy, or as a condition to a wedding.  I am happy if our children are raised Jewish.  I would be partners with Rachel in their getting a Jewish education. But I am not ready to convert to Judaism unless I feel it is something I want to do because it feels right to me.

Half of the room enthusiastically applauded after each rabbi spoke, reflecting the movement’s sharp division. Rabbi Gardenswartz noted one outcome of saying no is couples might go to “the fabulous Reform rabbi, of the thriving Reform synagogue, the next town over.” But the situation wasn’t so rosy at the URJ Biennial.

Out of more than 100 learning sessions, only four were focused on interfaith families. At one, I presented the results of a survey the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism (CFRIJ) conducted of interfaith inclusion policies and practices at Reform synagogues. One key takeaway was that leadership positions continue to be largely restricted to Jews; in only 43% of congregations can partners from different faith traditions serve as board members, and in only 21% as officers. Second, while ritual participation has opened up, with 70% of congregations allowing parents from different faith traditions to have or join in an Aliyah at the b’nai mitzvah of their children, it is not clear how many congregations allow partners from a different faith tradition to recite the words of the Torah blessings. Many congregational leaders clearly view conversion as a requirement for full inclusion in leadership and ritual.

Shortly before the Biennial, CFRIJ announced a grass-roots campaign to have Reform congregations propose a resolution at the 2021 URJ Biennial calling for full inclusion of interfaith families and partners from different faith traditions. One rabbi strongly objected, saying that if partners from different faith traditions can do everything Jews can do, Jewish identity would be meaningless and no one would convert, and that it’s like citizenship, where aliens have certain rights but can’t vote.

As I said at the learning session, addressing what inclusion means, maintaining high boundaries and applying the citizenship analogy – essentially, requiring conversion as a condition to full inclusion – is a recipe for decline. At another biennial session, on supporting “Jewish adjacent” members, two partners from different faith traditions detailed their extensive Jewish engagement in both their families’ lives and in their synagogues. Questions from the audience commented that they were more Jewishly engaged than many Jews, and wondered how they felt about conversion. Both indicated that for their very personal reasons, it wasn’t the right time, but it might be in the future.

The most striking development was Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ speech, As Numerous as the Stars of Heaven. After stating that “Jewish life was meant to expand and grow” and urging the Reform movement to enlarge the size of its tent, the speech focused almost entirely on embracing Jews of Color, and ended with a call to action to address antiracism. I am all in favor of embracing Jews of Color, but the impact of doing so is dwarfed by the potential numerical gain available from embracing partners from different faith traditions.

Rabbi Jacobs did make a passing reference to “so many people out there who are Jewishly adjacent… and they are part of this family of ours.” But instead of saying “There are millions of North American Jews … looking for a place to belong,” I wish Rabbi Jacobs had referred to millions of “North American Jews and their partners from different faith backgrounds.” When he said, “It is time that we make every person who comes under our tent feel like they already belong,” I wish he had said “that means partners from different faith backgrounds, too.”

The leaders of liberal Judaism are missing opportunities to explicitly prioritize engaging interfaith families, the defining challenge of our time. Another takeaway from the survey was that congregations do not talk effectively about their interfaith inclusion policies and practices either among their leadership or with their congregants, with only 18% publishing them on their websites.  We need to rise above the lingering ambivalence that conditions inclusion on conversion and instead embrace full inclusion as our goal.

This New Year, Who Will Be Only Welcomed, Who Fully Included?

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This op-ed originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy and is reprinted with permission.

Two important studies this summer noted the relatively lower Jewish engagement of interfaith couples. Instead of criticizing them or discouraging interfaith marriage, the Cohen Center recommended “strategies to introduce intermarried families to Jewish settings and offer them opportunities to participate.” This evidences a growing consensus, in the liberal if not the traditional Jewish world, on the importance of engaging interfaith families, discussed in ways that do not alienate them.

But consensus is lacking on a gating issue to engagement. The Beyond Welcoming study declares that we have succeeded “in making intermarried families feel welcome.” Even if that is correct, which I question, welcoming by itself, while essential, is insufficient. Advocates for every other marginalized Jewish group, including LGBTQ people, people of color, and people with disabilities, all agree that inclusion – the feeling of belonging – is necessary to support engagement.

Congregational consultant David Brubaker explains the difference:

A hospitable congregation welcomes visitors …, showing [them] that existing members are glad that they’ve come… [T]he visitor leaves feeling that his or her presence was truly appreciated.

Having been welcomed… offers no assurance that a visitor will also be fully included…  [I]nclusion is a much deeper form of acceptance… [O]nly genuine inclusion will convince me to remain part of the community. I will stay if I feel I truly belong.

Just like every other marginalized group, it stands to reason that interfaith couples and in particular partners from different faith backgrounds will not engage unless they are fully included – made to feel that they truly belong – in Jewish families, organizations and communities.

But unlike those other marginalized people, the partners from different faith traditions are by definition not Jewish, and there is no consensus on a commitment to their full inclusion.

Resolutions adopted by the Reform movement provide a telling comparison. The resolutions concerning LGBTQ people, transgender/gender non-conforming people, and people with disabilities recognize the distinction between welcoming and inclusion, and state full inclusion as their goal: “[T]o integrate fully all Jews into the life of the community regardless of sexual orientation,” “[W]elcoming communities of meaningful inclusion, enabling and encouraging people with disabilities and their families to participate fully in Jewish life in a way that promotes a sense of personal belonging for all individuals,” “[C]ommitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.”

But the movement’s resolutions on interfaith marriage to date commit only to welcoming interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds, while also encouraging conversion. Conversion is a wonderful, personal, existential choice, but if full inclusion is essential to engagement, and if we are only willing to fully include those who convert, then far too many interfaith couples will continue to be disengaged.

How can partners from different faith backgrounds be fully included? Inclusion theory posits that inclusion requires an adaptation of underlying attitudes towards those to be included, and adaptive change in the established system with which they engage. As Brubaker explains,

Hospitality requires no adaptation on the part of the congregation. (Friendliness and welcoming, yes, but no deep change.) Inclusion is quite different. When a congregation begins to integrate people from a racial group or socio-economic status different from its own dominant culture, it usually must adapt its way of being to be genuinely inclusive. Modes of worship may need to broaden. Methods of decision-making may need to change. And interaction patterns among members may need to evolve… New ideas will stretch the prevailing doctrines and new energies will stress the existing systems.

The Cohen Center’s We’ll Cross That Bridge study points to the key adaptation that is needed in the case of interfaith families: “In some cases, despite the initial welcome by a congregation, couples felt an undercurrent of disapproval or being treated as outsiders rather than as integral and valued members of the community.” It is the attitude that partners from different faith backgrounds are outsiders rather than members that needs to change.

In the deep-seated traditional view that Judaism is a system for the Jewish people and where what matters is being Jewish, interfaith marriage is wrong, and partners from different faith backgrounds are sub-optimal at best. Radical inclusion – radical because it stands that traditional view on its head – understands Judaism to be a system for the community of those who are engaging in Jewish life – who are doing Jewish – some of whom are Jewish, and some of whom, like the partners from different faith backgrounds, are not.

Radical inclusion requires adaptations in culture and in policies. We need to adapt attitudes such that interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions are thought of as equal to inmarried couples and to Jews. And we need to adapt policies such that they are treated as equals.

Paraphrasing the Religious Institute on LGBTQ inclusion, interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions need to be “made to feel like they are part of the family … full members of the faith community, with full opportunities to participate and equal responsibilities to serve.”

Many say that their organization or community is already sufficiently welcoming, as the Beyond Welcoming study suggests. But as the Religious Institute noted in the context of LGBTQ inclusion, there is “a tendency toward complacency among many congregations once the rainbow banner is unfurled…. [M]any clergy and congregants consider LGBT inclusion a ‘non-issue’ because ‘everyone knows we’re welcoming.’”

If we want more interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community, we should start this new year with a commitment to start working to fully include them. Because the alternative, as Brubaker concludes, is “inevitable decline. Congregations that refuse to include new people along with their new ways of being will inevitably discover that new people have no desire to affiliate.”

Or, as one disabilities expert recently said, “If even one person feels excluded, disconnected, or isolated, the entire community is diminished. Fostering a sense of belonging is a Jewish imperative.”

More Negative Conservative Officiation News

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The intermarriage debate in the Conservative world over officiation continued since June 21 with a mostly negative focus.

In a positive step, the Conservative-trained rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun explained their decision to create a new ceremony to officiate for interfaith couples. I applaud their decision and think their reasoning is very important: (1) “We subscribe to the approach in Halacha, rabbinic law, that holds that Jewish law must be interpreted and applied in relation to the realities of the community.” (2) There are two current realities: “When selecting life partners, shared American values often play a bigger role than religious identity, even for strongly-identified and -committed Jews; at the same time, never before have non-Jews been as open to playing an active role in the Jewish community, with or without conversion.” (3) They want to “be courageous and expand Halacha as a living and dynamic system with both commitment and compassion.”

Also, at least one more Conservative rabbi thinks it’s time for creative solutions. Rabbi Alfred Benjamin proposes that interfaith couples have a civil legal officiant who declares them married, and a Conservative rabbi lead a non-halachic “celebration of commitment” that is “infused with Jewish meaning, ritual and symbolism.”

When it comes to building and strengthening Jewish connections between an interfaith couple who want a Jewish-faith family, it is time for the Conservative Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly to be creative, courageous and encouraging. This scenario permits us to do so in a way that respects the integrity of all involved and is also “good for the Jews.”

While I don’t agree with all of Rabbi Benjamin’s reasoning, in particular what a partner from a different faith tradition could do or say with integrity, at least his proposal has Conservative rabbis acknowledging, welcoming and celebrating the couple and their commitments.

But the  Jewish Theological Seminary announced that it was not appropriate for Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples. JTS says that there is “much that Jews can and must do to signal our respect and welcome for non-Jews in our community, whether or not they choose to become Jewish,” but warmly invites “those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families” to convert. There’s nothing new there. But respectfully, the JTS statement goes off the rails when it says first that the data confirms that “by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with the Jewish family” and then continues: “This is not the moment for Conservative Jews and their rabbis to abandon the profound and joyful practice of rituals and learning, work for social justice and encounter with the Divine, love of Torah and love of the Jewish people that continue to make this form of Jewish life a source of community and meaning.” It is a non-sequitur to say that officiating for interfaith couples would mean such abandonment; indeed I believe, and the Cohen Center research on the impact of officiation shows, that officiating would lead to more Jewish life of community and meaning.

The New York Post summarized that B’nai Jeshurun was telling interfaith couples to “goy ahead” and marry in their sanctuary. (I hate that term.) A Canadian Conservative rabbi said the “renegade rabbis” at Lab/Shul and B’nai Jeshurun don’t deserve admiration or praise. Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall’s take on all of the discussion is that conversion should be promoted.

There were three more essays by individual Conservative rabbis that call out for response.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik disagrees strongly with officiating for interfaith couples, arguing that “boundaries are irreducibly critical to the Jew’s quest for a holy life.” But it is a non-sequitur to suggest that being holy by being separate and not like everyone else means that Jews shouldn’t marry people from different faith traditions. It isn’t being separate for separateness’ sake, it means acting in ways that lead to holiness – ways that people from different faith traditions can embrace, without conversion. Rabbi Skolnik also says that interfaith couples choose to intermarry and “Judaism should not be forced to grant its imprimatur to couples whose free-will choice violates the sanctity of the traditional marriage boundary.” While saying that officiating goes too far, he does acknowledge the Jewish community’s “urgent responsibility to make interfaith couples feel welcomed and loved, even if it means pushing the envelope of comfort in synagogues and communal organizations.” Trends in Conservative movement to date have shown that interfaith couples don’t feel welcomed and loved when rabbis won’t officiate for them.

Rabbi Abigail Treu actually says, “When a rabbi says no, couples just find someone else to do what they were going to do anyway. We just lose the chance to bring Jewish life into that moment, or to share their joy and add to it.” I posted on Facebook comment that said “Just? Really?” It’s distressing to me that the director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC Manhattan, someone who lead Introduction to Judaism classes for several years, could so cavalierly dismiss the opportunity that officiating provides for influencing interfaith couples towards future Jewish engagement. Contrast her suggestion that couples don’t want rabbis to officiate anyway to Anita Diamant’s statement in her revised The Jewish Wedding Now that if you want a Jewish wedding “you need a rabbi.” The JCC Manhattan offers great programming for interfaith couples, so I hope I misunderstood Rabbi Treu’s point.

Rabbi Aaron Brusso, who is on the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly, wrote A Letter to Couples of Jewish and Non-Jewish Backgrounds, another distressing dismissal of officiating’s potential for positive influence. Rabbi Brusso says that he respects people’s decisions and that they have done nothing wrong by falling love; but it doesn’t make sense “for the wedding ceremony to view [them] instrumentally as builders of Jewish homes” (a pot-shot at Rabbi Angela Buchdahl’s argument that they in fact can be); and when they decided to marry “saving the Jewish people” wasn’t on their list of things to do. He says he’s sorry if they don’t come and talk to him in person – but with comments like that, who would want to? Rabbi Brusso’s main point is that the liturgy of a Jewish wedding doesn’t fit an interfaith couple – when it refers to celebrating the wedding “in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for example – but how many Jewish-Jewish couples have that understanding of the liturgy?

Rabbi Brusso dismisses the Cohen Center research by saying “I could play the demographic numbers game and rationalize that my presence under the chuppah with you and others is a statistical winner for the Jewish people. But the chuppah is not a Vegas table.” Actually, many Jewish engagement programs are offered because of belief they will be statistical winners that result in later engagement. He says the wedding is about who the couple is – disregarding who they will be or might become. Tellingly, Rabbi Brusso explains that he seriously dated a Methodist woman while in college, and once when they saw the movie Europa, Europa together, when he sobbed, “she was appreciative of what I was feeling, but it was clear that it simply did not mean the same thing to her.” Respectfully, that perspective is short-sighted – it forecloses the opportunity for a partner from a different faith tradition to gain that kind of understanding and feeling.

Two voices from the Orthodox world chimed in. Rabbi Yogi Robkin says Worried about Jewish Assimilation? Be A Good Person — For Judaism’s Sake with a story of a rabbi who donated a kidney to a stranger. I wouldn’t argue with his main point, which seems to be that the most important thing is to “reach out and extend a hand to those floating by.” Unfortunately he quotes another Orthodox rabbi, Efrem Goldberg, who says that recognizing patrilineal descent and officiating at weddings of interfaith couples represent “gross distortions of halacha, mesora [tradition] and the will of the Almighty,” attempts “to put a Band-Aid over a deeply infected wound that is gushing blood.”

It’s not surprising that Rabbi Goldberg’s antidote is more adherence to halacha. But it’s disappointing to hear the editors of the New Jersey Jewish News say that
“if the present demographic trends [i.e., intermarriage] continue, Jewish life and peoplehood as we know it may well disappear in the coming decades.” Their proposal: Jews marrying Jews.

This is all rather depressing. To review: Officiating for interfaith couples would mean abandoning Jewish life. Conversion is the answer. Boundaries excluding partners from different faith traditions are necessary for holiness. We shouldn’t be forced to approve voluntary boundary violations. It doesn’t matter anyway, couples will just have a friend officiate. They’re not builders of Jewish homes and they don’t care about the Jewish future. Officiating increases the chance of a Jewish future for them? Well, what matters is who they are now, not what they might become. And anyway, the chuppah’s not “a Vegas table.”

Is it surprising that interfaith couples would not want to participate in a community that sent those kinds of messages?

Fortunately, there’s a more positive perspective.

Israel Doesn’t Want Reform Converts?

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There is a very powerful op-ed in the New York Jewish Week today, Israel Doesn’t Want a Reform Convert Like Me by Rabbi Heidi Hoover who serves as rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn.

Jewish status in Israel is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, and conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis – and now even under by some Orthodox rabbis – are not recognized. Because Rabbi Hoover converted to Judaism under Reform auspices, her conversion is not recognized, and she concludes, “Israel doesn’t want me.”

I think Rabbi Hoover is exactly right when she says,

One of the messages that American Jews receive relentlessly is that we need to support Israel. There is much hand wringing over the perceived lessening of American Jewish connection to Israel among teens and young adults, and even among rabbinical students. I believe this lessening of connection is in part due to a growing number of American Jews who cannot fully live as Jews in Israel because their status as Jews is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate….

The question of Jewish status depends on who you are asking, or whose opinion you care about. Rabbi Hoover tells people in her congregation who are converts under liberal auspices, and people who identify as Jewish whose mothers were not Jewish, that “they are, in fact, Jewish,” but she wants them to be prepared that there are those who will not recognize them as such. That’s important, especially for the many young adults raised as Jews in interfaith families whose Jewish status would be questioned by others.

I think Rabbi Hoover also is exactly right when she concludes,

It is crucial that American Jews of all denominations join to support religious pluralism in Israel, and in the United States as well. We need to find ways to respect and recognize each other’s conversions and life-cycle rituals. There are not so many of us that we can afford to be divided, and if Israel continues to disenfranchise American Jews, she cannot expect their support to continue indefinitely.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Serious But Not Fully Observant Jews

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I would like to recommend an excellent article by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, On Joining the Covenant.  Rabbi Greenberg is a very highly regarded Modern Orthodox rabbi. He apparently wrote the article to take a position on the current crisis over conversion standards in Israel. But it has implications which I find fascinating, for liberal Jews and people in interfaith relationships here in America.

The background is that there are hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union who had one Jewish grandparent and were able to move to Israel under its law of return , but are not halachically Jewish themselves (their mother or mother’s mother was not Jewish). Many serve in the Israel Defense Force, but are not considered Jewish for purposes of personal status, including marriage and burial. Many want to convert in order to be fully recognized as Jews, but conversion in Israel is controlled by the extremely strict Orthodox rabbinate, which requires potential converts to agree to live an Orthodox lifestyle, complying with all requirements of Jewish law.

Rabbi Greenberg provides elegant and concise explanations of what the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and conversion, are about. The covenant is about tikkun olam, defined as the replenishment of the deficiency in creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world, with humanity as God’s partner, the ultimate aim of Judaism. The first Jewish family, Abraham and Sarah, took on this covenantal mission, but because the family is dedicated to the higher ideal, it is not just a family that one joins by being born into it. Conversion is about accepting the family’s mission and committing oneself to its ideals.

In addition to the ritual requirements of conversion (circumcision for males and immersion in the mikveh) and to pledging to identify and continue the life’s work of the family, Jewish law imposes a third requirement of conversion, “the knowing acceptance of” the Torah. This is where the dispute arises as to the degree of observance of Jewish law that is required. Rabbi Greenberg provides a wonderful short description of different kinds of mitzvot, those involving ethics and interpersonal dealings, and those involving ritual activities.

Rabbi Greenberg’s formulation is that a convert is saying, with respect to the Torah, that “I acknowledge that there are obligations on me. I will not act and do whatever I please but rather will discipline my behavior to advance the purpose and mission of the covenant.” He goes on to say that “a person’s acknowledging and accepting the principle that there are indeed obligations we are commanded to keep if we would live up to” the covenant, in itself fulfills the conversion requirement of knowing acceptance of the Torah. “The individual should then accept the mitzvot in principle, while explicitly committing himself or herself to the fundamental precepts of ethics as well as to such basic rituals as kashrut and shabbat.”

And even here, there is room for nuance. For instance, kosher means that, because one is a Jew, one will or won’t eat certain foods. Thus, a person who gives up pig or shellfish, or eats no hametz (leavened products) on Passover, can, even if not keeping a kosher home, legitimately say: I accept the obligation to keep kosher. By the same token, a person can honor shabbat as a special day by lighting candles, scheduling a special family meal on Friday night, visiting mother and father religiously on the Sabbath day, and thus, even if not observing the 39 proscribed categories of labor spelled out in the Talmud, still legitimately declare: as a Jew, I will observe shabbat.

As an Orthodox Jew and rabbi, Rabbi Greenberg says he wants people to observe kashrut and Shabbat fully, but he affirms the limited form of observance as a legitimate accommodation to enable the conversion of people in Israel who will be “serious Jews – albeit not Orthodox Jews.” Later in the essay he says these standards meet the needs for conversion in the Diaspora as well. And he concludes by saying that if his approach of not insisting on full observance of the ritual mitzvot were followed, “I am convinced we would in fact end up with many more fully observant converts than we have now, not to speak of the tens of thousands who, even though less than fully observant, would be fully serious Jews.”

Coming from an admittedly non-Orthodox perspective as I do, Rabbi Greenberg’s approach to the current conversion crisis in Israel, and to appropriate conversion standards here in America, is enlightened. As a “political” matter, I wish that more Orthodox authorities would agree with him. There are other questions that interest me more: To what extent can a non-converting non-Jewish partner still participate in the Jewish people’s mission to make the real world conform to the ideal? To what extent can such a person be said to be committed to the principle that there are obligations involved in that mission, and to observe them? Can a non-Jewish or for that matter a Jewish partner acknowledge that there are obligations involved in living up to the covenant without accepting that those obligations are commanded by God?

In my personal practice, I don’t keep fully kosher, but I scrupulously avoid eating pork. I used to feel embarrassed by this “not good enough” practice until another rabbi told me years ago that “anything that you do in the direction of keeping kosher is good.” I find Rabbi Greenberg’s tolerance of less than full observance of Jewish law and his welcoming of serious but not fully observant Jews to be very heartening. InterfaithFamily.com is trying to encourage interfaith couples and families to engage in Jewish life. They by and large are not going to be fully observant, but they could be seriously Jewishly engaged. If that approach is respected, and considered close to if not within the covenant, then more interfaith couples and families may move in that direction.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Conversion for Children at Mayyim Hayyim

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Our friends at Mayyim Hayyim have produced a wonderful video of the conversion of an infant. The film was made by a terrific film maker, Jennifer Kaplan. We’ve added it to our Conversion Resource Page; you can watch the video on our site.

Please check out my comments on the video on Mayyim Hayyim’s new blog.

While you’re at it, consider attending Mayyim Hayyim’s international conference October 10-12.

The project was supported by funding from two of InterfaithFamily.com’s supporters CJP, the Boston federation, and the Natan Fund.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

 

Conversion Shifts

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It feels like an inexplicable coincidence. On July 8 I wrote an appreciation of Gary Tobin, a leading Jewish thinker and supporter of outreach to interfaith families who just passed away. I remembered his support for us and our tactical disagreement about how much to promote conversion to non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages. On the same day, the New York Jewish Week wrote about a major shift in the Conservative Movement about … how much to promote conversion as part of interfaith outreach.

Since InterfaithFamily.com got started, we have been interested in trying to help Conservative Jews respond positively to intermarriage. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. At the Hornstein Program at Brandeis, I wrote a paper on the Movement’s response to intermarriage, analyzing responsa literature from the Committee On Law and Standards. In IFF’s early years we had eminent Conservative rabbis like Bradley Shavit Artson (dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University), Myron Geller (a long-time member of the Committee on Law and Standards) and Carl Perkins (author of the revised edition of Embracing Judaism published by the Rabbinical Assembly) write for us.

We were very supportive when the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs started its keruv initiative. Rabbi Charles Simon participated in the conference we held for outreach professionals in May 2007, and we reviewed the FJMC’s pamphlets The Role of the Supportive Non-Jewish Spouse in the Conservative/Masorti Movement and Let’s Talk About It: A Book of Support and Guidance for Families Experiencing Intermarriage and Synagogue Leadership.

Since we started listing Jewish organizations that welcome interfaith families back in 2001 and 2002, we have tried to recruit Conservative synagogues. When I spoke with Conservative rabbis in those days, pretty much the first question they would ask is, “what’s your position on conversion?” When I would say “conversion is a wonderful personal choice and we are delighted if any of our resources help people along that path, but we think that conversion should not be promoted too aggressively because it will turn away people who might otherwise come in and raise Jewish children,” many times the rabbi’s response would be “that’s not good enough.”

It appears that attitudes are adapting to the times. Slowly over the years, we have been able to recruit more than 70 Conservative synagogues and institutions to list on our organization directory. It has been widely reported that the growth in the Reform Movement and the decline in the Conservative Movement between 1990 and 2000 was due to the Reform Movement’s greater acceptance of interfaith families.

Now the Jewish Week article reports that all of the arms of the Conservative Movement have now signed off on a forthcoming pamphlet that will shift the movement away from an aggressive push for conversion. Rabbi Simon is quoted as saying that although “there is nothing wrong with saying conversion is important to us, we should be honest about it. There is not a realistic expectation in today’s life to set a goal of conversion. Couples set their own goals; that is not where I would start the game.”

Today I submitted this letter to the Jewish Week:

I write to applaud news of an important shift in the Conservative Movement’s approach to interfaith families (Conservatives End Push to Convert Intermarrieds, July 8, 2009) and the leadership of Rabbi Charles Simon and the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs on this critical issue. While conversion is a wonderful personal choice, all of the Movement’s arms apparently now recognize that engaging people in Jewish family life is the most important end result, and that promoting conversion too aggressively risks alienating couples who might otherwise get involved. The Jewish Outreach Institute’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is clearly right that conversion is not an outreach strategy, or, as Rabbi Simon says, the place to “start the game.” The fact that over 70 Conservative synagogues and institutions currently list on the InterfaithFamily.com Network of organizations that welcome interfaith families indicates that many Conservative congregational rabbis and lay leaders are already acting consistently with this positive new attitude.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Gary Tobin, An Appreciation

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I was very sad to learn that Gary Tobin died on Monday. He was a brilliant and provocative thinker, and a passionate advocate for opening Jewish communities to include interfaith families and Jews of color.

When I stopped being a lawyer and started working in the Jewish non-profit world in 1999, the first gathering I ever attended was an event around the publication of Tobin’s Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community. I still have that book on my shelf, with many post-it notes interspersed among its pages.

We asked Gary to write for InterfaithFamily.com and he contributed Proactive Conversion as Outreach. We were in our infancy at that point and it was a real boost to have such a distinguished thought leader write for us. Later we reprinted an essay Gary contributed to Sh’ma, Do We Want to Be Who We Really Are?

I didn’t always agree with Gary. In Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community — A Review, I agreed with a lot of his argument. He didn’t advocate for proselytizing, but defined “proactive conversion” simply as welcoming non-Jews to become Jews. He wanted the Jewish community to have a positive attitude about conversion and converts. But I thought then, and still do, that we would be better off promoting “proactive inclusion” than “proactive conversion” — we should include non-Jewish partners and encourage them to make Jewish choices, with conversion one possible wonderful outcome among others.

I visited Gary twice at the offices of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. He was gracious with his time, interest and advice. I knew he had been ill in the past. But as recently as March, he was participating in an extended discussion I blogged about on the JOI JOPLIN listserv about whether programs specifically for interfaith families were still necessary.

In recent years, Gary’s inclusivity work focused on Jews of  color and helping Be’chol Lashon: In Every Tongue, a non-profit founded by his wife Diane. I talked with Diane only a month ago about ways our organizations could work together.

There aren’t many high-profile intellectual leaders who argue in favor of making Jewish communities more inclusive. That makes it all the more tragic that Gary Tobin died at the very young age of 59 — sadly, the same age at which we lost Egon Mayer, of blessed memory. Our sympathies go out to Diane and the Tobin children.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Two Friends

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We had a pretty big week at InterfaithFamily.com last week. As we’ve already mentioned, it’s our fifth anniversary as an independent organization, and the 200th issue of our Web Magazine, and we had great coverage in the New York Jewish Week and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. We launched our new User Survey and have already had a big response (you can win an iPod if you take it!), and we revamped our Discussion Boards so that registration isn’t required, and they’re already busier. I was in Los Angeles Monday through Wednesday, speaking at a conference for RAVSAK (the association of Jewish community day schools) and having a series of meetings that are going to result in significant new funding for us. And we had a meeting of InterfaithFamily.com’s Board of Directors on Thursday, with a presentation by Harvard sociologist Chris Winship, the co-chair of CJP’s community survey committee, on the results of the 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey.

But something happened Friday night that topped it all.

On Friday night I went to services at a local Reform synagogue. The husband of someone very involved with IFF went to the mikvah at Mayyim Hayyim on Friday and completed his formal conversion to Judaism; his conversion was recognized at the service, and he spoke about his journey.

This wonderful, accomplished man met his wife in college. She made it clear that having a Jewish family was very important to her, and he was willing to go along. He didn’t know what it would all mean at the start, and he was supportive, but on the periphery. Then they came to Boston, and his wife started getting involved in the Jewish community here. He said that he experienced an incredible welcome from CJP, the Boston federation, being invited to participate in programs and just warmly included by CJP’s leaders. And he said he felt invited and welcomed by what he found on InterfaithFamily.com. He got more involved himself, studied, and — sixteen years after his wedding — he decided to “make it official.”

To think that the work we do at InterfaithFamily.com had even a small part in this man’s journey was deeply moving to me. It made the impact of a welcoming approach to interfaith couples very concrete and inspired me to move ahead to the next five years.

*****

In other news, there is a story in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle about our friend Sherry Israel, who spoke at Beth Shalom, a local Conservative synagogue. Sherry is a highly regarded social scientest (and my teacher at the Hornstein Program at Brandeis). Among other quotes:

On day schools admitting the children of non-Jewish mothers: “Here’s a family that wants to give a child a Jewish upbringing, and that includes a deep Jewish education. We should say no? Let’s find a way to say yes.”

On permitting non-Jewish family members to participate in life-cycle events, including taking part in the symbolic passing of the Toard during a Bar or Bat Mitzvah: “People who study these matters say the bimah isn’t sacred space… There is no prohibition against non-Jews touching a Torah. Take the situation of the non-Jewish mother who has done all this work raising the child. Hasn’t that mother been helping pass the tradition?”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Michael Richards, Yossi Beilin and Who’s Jewish?

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There’s been an interesting confluence of events over the past several weeks that raise the question, “Who’s Jewish?”

First there was the media firestorm about comedian Michael Richards, the beloved Kramer from the TV show Seinfeld, having made racist comments at an LA comedy club. Other than being horrified as I assume most others were, I didn’t pay much attention to that news blitz, until reports started coming out that Richards’ publicist was saying that Richards considered himself to be Jewish. As reported in the Houston Chronicle, for example, Richards, though not born of Jewish parents and not having converted to Judaism, “believes in the tenets of Judaism and considers himself Jewish.” Other than a first reaction questioning whether it would be a good thing if Richards were Jewish, I didn’t pay much attention to that issue either, until a bloggers’ blitz started up arguing that Richards could not be Jewish if his parents weren’t and he hadn’t converted.

That reminded me that at InterfaithFamily.com we hear many comments, usually from non-Jewish parents who are raising their children as Jews, along the lines of “I feel a little bit Jewish” or “I feel more and more Jewish as time goes by” or “I’m sort-of Jewish, aren’t I?” Rabbi Kerry Olitzky wrote a wonderful article for our Web Magazine, Doing the Conversion “Two-Step”, also included in our book, explaining how many people experience a “conversion of the heart” long before they formally convert, if indeed they ever do.

It doesn’t serve the Jewish community’s interests, in my opinion, to jump to a conclusion that a person can’t be Jewish if his parents weren’t and he or she hasn’t converted. In fact I wrote an essay, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for the Spring 2000 issue of Reform Judaism Magazine, arguing that “we should adopt a policy of ‘total inclusion’ of the intermarried by broadening the definition of Jewish peoplehood to include both Jews and their non-Jewish partners.”

That brings me to Yossi Beilin. Years ago we reprinted his Thoughts on Secular Conversion: An Important Alternative to Religious Conversion. A few days ago, Ha’aretz reported that Beilin, a member of Israel’s Knesset, has introduced a bill to recognize as Jewish those in Israel with a Jewish father (traditionally, only children of a Jewish mother are recognized as Jews) and to establish a process of secular conversion. As reported in Ha’aretz, someone would be considered Jewish who “has joined the Jewish people in a non-religious process and has linked his or her fate with the Jewish people, and is not a member of another religion.” Beilin is quoted as saying, “If people see themselves as Jewish… why should the state define them as not Jewish.” The article continues,

Beilin’s idea of secular conversion, which he first raised in 1999, involves joining the Jewish people by means of activities in the Jewish community and maintaining a Jewish lifestyle. Committees would be established to determine what demands would be made of those who wished to join the Jewish people, Beilin proposes, “such as elementary knowledge of Hebrew and checking there are no extraneous interests.”

Beilin said the central consideration in accepting people to Judaism by means of secular conversion would be a family tie to Jews.

So while I can’t comment on the sincerity of Michael Richards’ feelings, maybe his publicist’s argument isn’t so far-fetched. Maybe he should be considered Jewish, after all.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.