May 2024 News from the Center

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After October 7

The JTA Teen Fellowship produced an excellent article, “For teens in interfaith families, the war in Gaza can be a stress test of their Jewish identities,” that describes the experiences of three Jewish teens from interfaith families. Fern Chertok, a leading researcher on interfaith families, said “[b]eing able to learn from different viewpoints is often a dividend for teens from interfaith families… They are the natural bridge builders.” Rabbi Jessica Lowenthal, who works with teens from interfaith families as director of her congregation’s religious school, made the most important point – she “doesn’t see a difference between how interfaith families or other Jewish families relate to Israel, given the disagreements and diverse upbringings among Jews.”

The JFNA staff responsible for a new JFNA survey described in eJP “newfound interest in Jewish life” after October 7, describing a “Surge” of people showing up who previously were not very engaged and who are “craving community.” The authors say this “explosive increase in interest and engagement … is an opportunity and responsibility of historic proportions;” a key response is to “increase belonging,” more training in relational engagement for staff and volunteers, more notice and welcome of everyone. So far, no data has been released on whether the Jewish engagement of Jewish respondents was affected by how their partners who are not Jewish feel in Jewish settings.

New York Community Study

The UJA-Federation of New York federation released the New York 2023 Jewish Community Study, discussed in the New York Jewish Week and in eJP.  

The JTA story only noted that “The rate of intermarriage is lower in New York than among Jews in the rest of the country.” While the overall percent of New York married couples who are intermarried is 37%, it is 46% of all non-Orthodox couples, and 57% of non-Orthodox couples who are 30-49 years old (compared to 34% of those who are 65+).

The eJP report quotes Ira Sheskin as attributing the 6% growth in Jewish households since the last survey in 2011 “in part to interfaith marriages” – “If two Jews marry one another, you get one Jewish household. If two Jews marry non-Jews, you get two Jewish households.”

The study found that 16% of adults in intermarried families report they are raising their children Jewish and 5% Jewish and something else (compared to 96% and 0% respectively in in-married families). Emily Sigalow, one of the study’s directors, is quoted in the eJP story as saying “a lower percentage of interfaith couples said they raised their children Jewish than expected… In other big Jewish communities like Los Angeles and Chicago, there are higher percentages [of people saying their children are Jewish]…” Sigalow “attributed the difference to how pollsters phrase the questions: ‘We asked about how children are raised, whereas others asked about their Jewish identity.’”

Importantly, as to 20% of the children in intermarried families, and 27% of the children in those families under three years of age, the parents have not decided yet on religious upbringing – representing a big opportunity. Moreover, 44% of adults in intermarried families reporting they are raising their children as “none of the above” – yet 66% of those families celebrate Hanukkah and 62% attend a Passover seder. This illustrates the lack of clarity and consistency around what it means to raise a child Jewish, or Jewish and something else, or neither of those choices.

However, only 27% of intermarried households with children held a Jewish naming ceremony, and only 17% have had or are planning to have a bar or bat mitzvah. The low figure for naming ceremonies is understandable given the large percentage of undecideds with younger children, but the low figure for bar/bat mitzvah, when children obviously are older, is concerning.

The study asked questions about the reasons people did not attend religious services, but unlike some other local community studies, did not give as a possible answer not feeling welcome.

Finally, the study asked respondents how important it would be that their grandchildren be Jewish and marry someone Jewish. They conclude from the answers that Jewish New Yorkers feel that “Jewish continuity is important” – suggesting, wrongly I would say, that marrying someone Jewish is necessary for Jewish continuity. In fact, intermarrieds in the survey understood this: while 42% said it was important that their grandchildren be Jewish, only 17% said it was important that their grandchildren marry someone Jewish.

Progress

In March I wrote that Noah Feldman’s new book To Be a Jew Today offers A Fresh Perspective on Interfaith Marriage. This month an article in the Harvard Law Bulletin (where Feldman teaches) says he “explores the tension in discouraging intermarriage amid societal expectations that we should be free to marry whomever we happen to love, writing that ‘there is something troubling about saying that I can only love someone if the person is part of my Us, not if the person is part of my Them.’”

Samir Mehta’s “For American Jews, interfaith weddings are a new normal – and creatively weave both traditions together” is a very pleasant recounting of the ways interfaith couples incorporate their families’ traditions. At the end, under the heading “Tough conversations,” she writes that “Not everything is fun and easy in the world of interfaith weddings.” Couples who she interviewed told her stories about their weddings – but some were about rabbis who would not officiate for them, or family members who disapproved. But she concludes, “Overall, however, most people’s weddings were happy memories that offered hints to the interfaith lives and household that they would go on to create together.”

The second (perhaps annual?) Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism conference is being held May 29 and 30. As I wrote last year, although one of the motivations for the gathering then was “lagging Reform synagogue attendance and declining revenues,” nothing was said about inclusion of interfaith families as a way to reverse declining enrollment. I was pleased to see that this year, 18Doors’ Jodi Bromberg is a panelist, and I hope to report on what was said next month.

Also in the news:

  • In a positive development from Israel, the Supreme Court ruled that non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel would be recognized for purposes of Israeli citizenship. Previously, non-Orthodox conversions outside of Israel were recognized, but not those conduced in Israel. One leading political figure “welcomed the ruling, saying, ‘We all need to live here in mutual tolerance and respect.’”
  • A report of a presentation by Dr. Tatjana Lichtenstein, a professor at the University of Texas, on the experiences of intermarried families in the Holocaust.
  • PRRI published a survey on “Family Religious Dynamics and Interfaith Relationships” but unfortunately did not report any data on Jews or Jewish families.

December 2023 News from the Center

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Most of the Jewish world’s attention is still focused – appropriately I would say – on what’s happening in Israel. But it feels right to start reporting and commenting on interfaith inclusion news again. Especially since December is always a big month for interfaith families.

December Holidays

The UK Institute for Jewish Policy Research issued a new study that found that 28% of Jews in the UK have a Christmas tree at least some years. For interfaith couples, it’s 45% every year, compared to 36% who light Hanukkah candles. I appreciated that the JPR referred to Christmas trees as a “cultural manifestation.”

Most important, the JPR, which is a pretty traditional organization, did not criticize or bemoan the presence of Christmas trees, but instead calmly concluded that the findings “capture both the tenacity of Jewishness today and the realities of Jewish life in the modern multicultural age… Maintaining a Jewish identity in a non-Jewish society has long been a challenge; the ways in which we adopt non-Jewish customs and practices says a great deal about who we are and how we manage those dynamics.” (The Jewish News article on the report had a catchy title – “Oy to the World” – and refers to “ChristmasTreeGate” – but ultimately quotes the same conclusion.)

I read a few stories in Jewish and secular media about how interfaith families were celebrating the December holidays, but didn’t really notice anything new. The Reform movement’s website had some nice and very accepting advice in Five Ways to Approach Family Conversations Around Hanukkah and Christmas.

There was one story I didn’t care for, “I packed away Christmas 35 years ago, but I still bring holiday joy to others.” Janet Silver Ghent grew up in a Jewish family that celebrated Christmas, then married and divorced a man who was not Jewish, then married a Jewish man who had been in an interfaith marriage; at that point she gave up Christmas because she “reclaimed [her] Jewish identity after decades of assimilation.” She told a step-daughter, who asked why they couldn’t have a little tree, “a little tree is like a little pregnant.”

Ghent’s story stood out to me for a tone that is critical of Jewish families that celebrate Christmas, something I did not see much of elsewhere this December. Assimilation means losing Jewish identity and practice; it seems that more and more people in the Jewish world understand that having a Christmas tree does not mean that an interfaith family has assimilated.

Attitudes about Interfaith Marriage

The Shalom Hartman Institute and its co-president Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi, are deservedly among the most highly-regarded Jewish educational institutions and leaders in the world. When someone of Rabbi Hartman’s stature speaks about engaging interfaith families positively, it’s amazing, a cause for celebration.

In his new book, Who Are The Jews – And Who Can We Become, Hartman refers to “non-assimilationist exogamy;” says “most North American Jews who marry non-Jews do not see selves as rejecting Jewishness;” says interfaith marriage “can no longer be a boundary that defines Jewishness – it is now the norm of Jewish life;” talks about expanding “the parameters of Jewish identity” and “the inclusion of intermarried Jews and their spouses who chose to join us;” and recommends, “rather than digging our heels into a self-defeating discourse of denial, we marshal our collective creativity to ensure a vital next chapter in the Jewish people’s story.” This was all music to my ears.

I was equally amazed when the institute’s US-based co-president, Yehuda Kurtzer, another top Jewish public intellectual, in an opinion about the reshaping of the American Zionist left after October 7, said,  “[T]he big tent should be inclusive of anyone seeking to belong. One fascinating outcome of this could mean that we stop the decadeslong obsession with intermarriage as the marker of Jewish peoplehood. After Oct. 7, identification with the Jewish people at a time of suffering is a much healthier, and maybe more accurate, indicator of belonging.”

Speaking of top intellectual leaders, I was very saddened by the death of Rabbi David Ellenson, the much beloved past president of Hebrew Union College. As explained in my remembrance, he had the most remarkable generosity of spirit of anyone I ever met. Although I publicly criticized his decision to maintain HUC’s policy not to admit rabbinic students in interfaith relationships, he became a supporter and a friend,  publicly endorsing InterfaithFamily’s work several times, speaking at the afternoon of learning when I retired from InterfaithFamily, and providing the cover endorsement for my book. He never said this to me, but I can only imagine that he felt our policy differences were disputes for the sake of heaven.

Research

The Cohen Center at Brandeis released the 2022 San Diego Jewish Community Study. In San Diego, 49% of married Jewish individuals are intermarried, and 67% of couples that include a Jewish person are intermarried; in intermarried households, 55% of children are considered by their parents to be Jewish, and another 20% are considered to be Jewish and another religion. During 2024 I hope to complete my analysis of the Cohen Center’s recent local community studies.

I am excited about the prospects of a new study, funded by the Crown Family, Harold Grinspoon and Jim Joseph foundations. The study by Rosov Consulting and led by Alex Pomson will explore “the interests, needs, hopes, and challenges of a wide diversity of Jewish families, including those with more than one religious or cultural tradition…” They will examine which elements of the parents’ heritages they wish to continue, which they have chosen not to, and why.

The first part of the study is a just-released review of research which clearly notes that welcoming Jewish attitudes and institutions make a difference. I appreciated the review’s statement that the last decade’s research “dispels the still-common tropes in communal discourse about the ‘dangers’ [interfaith families] pose to Jewish continuity.” I appreciated the recognition that structural factors, including institutional policies and ideologies, impact on couples’ decision. For interfaith families, that means experiencing pressure to convert, encountering attitudes and policies that privilege matrilineal descent, and hearing interfaith marriage characterized as a problem. I appreciated the review’s noting that for LGBTQ+ couples who are also interfaith, “many of the Christian partners were more favorably inclined toward Judaism because they viewed the Jewish community as more welcoming of LGBTQ+ people.”

I liked what the review said about terminology:

[W]e use the term “interfaith” to refer to all couples and their families in which one partner is Jewish (in some way) and the other is from a different religious, cultural or ethnic background, including those in which one partner has converted to Judaism, those in which each partner adheres to a different faith tradition, and those who do not consider themselves to be religious. All such families face similar challenges in negotiating which elements of the parents’ childhood heritage to perpetuate or discard.

Finally, coming full circle back to December, the review also notes the negative influence of Jews choosing to “code” Christmas traditions as “religious” and not “cultural,” and “therefore incompatible with a Jewish home, even though … arguably devoid of strictly religious meaning for many who engage in them.”

I find all of this very promising, and look forward to further reports as the study takes shape.

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At this difficult time, I hope your December holidays were as good as they could be, and I send sincere wishes for a good and better new year.

August 2023 News from the Center

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Our Jerusalem Post Op-ed

In the run-up to the High Holy Days, the Jerusalem Post published my op-ed, Can Judaism find a loving approach to include interfaith families?

The UK’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research had published a report of rates of interfaith marriage around the world. I was startled when the Post’s editorial said interfaith marriage is not only “a significant phenomenon that cannot be ignored” but more importantly that it must “be approached thoughtfully and sensitively.” I was more startled when the editors applauded creative approaches to interfaith marriage that among other things took into account “the feelings of both Jewish and non-Jewish spouses.”

My op-ed applauds the Post editors’ enlightened thinking. I wanted to say more about what a thoughtful and sensitive approach would involve, and took the opportunity to explain how considering and treating interfaith couples as equal to inmarried couples, and partners from different faith backgrounds as equal to Jews, is both essential to more interfaith families feeling included in Jewish settings, and very challenging to traditional views.

The IJPR’s executive director, Jonathan Boyd, in his own op-ed in the Post, said that in the month of Av, “We’re called on to choose between love and hate across our differences. Choose the former, and we may achieve something together.” In my piece I asked if a loving approach to interfaith couples and partners from different faith backgrounds was too much to hope for, and that’s where the Post got the title.

Embark Acquired by Moishe House

eJewishPhilanthropy reported that Embark, a program for interfaith couples funded by Laura Lauder, has been acquired by Moishe House. Embark has run programs in Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia to educate interfaith couples about Jewish life and rituals; under Moishe House, a two-day retreat will be added, allowing participants to meet, and Moishe House will offer interfaith couples the option to live its trademark subsidized homes in exchange for hosting Jewish programming for fellow Jewish young professionals.

This sounds like a great match.

The article has a lot of back-and-forth about conversion; I appreciated Laura Lauder’s conclusion, “Whether or not people convert is not going to be a sign of success. We enable young Jewish couples to raise Jewish children, and I would like the world to know that Jewish life in America is going to thrive with interfaith couples, not despite interfaith couples.”

Traditional Attitudes About Interfaith Marriage

The IJPR report, and the Post article about it, are refreshing for concluding that low fertility rates – not interfaith marriage – are the “main threat to Jewish demographic sustainability.” But the author, Dr. Daniel Staetsky, clearly expresses a traditional perspective, in particular when he says that “transmission of Jewishness is partial in the case of intermarried [Jewish] mothers… based on empirical reality.” There isn’t acknowledgment or recognition of the possibilities for full, powerful “transmission of Jewishness” by interfaith parents.

Dr. Staetsky says that “the definition of Jewishness dictated by Jewish law… is broadly accepted by all Jews, while the modifications to it, or expansions, are not.” That’s the root of the problem – the traditional perspective doesn’t tolerate inclusion of interfaith couples or their children. It views high rates of interfaith marriage as a problem, a failure. Comparing the rate of all married Jews who are intermarried, the IJPR study finds the US in the middle of the pack at 45%, compared to Israel at 5% and Poland at 76%; a self-congratulatory comment in the British press notes their 22% rate is third lowest in the world.

The report is positive in mentioning the possibility that Jewish law could change, saying that that is beyond the limits of a demographic study and “belongs in the realm of rabbinical thought.” It is also positive in recognizing the “critical question” of “how to treat the consequences of intermarriage” and asking “How and to what extent … should communities accept and incorporate the offspring and spouses of intermarried Jews into communal activities.” It goes on to ask, “can some normative standards be developed across the Jewish world?” Given traditional attitudes, I’m not optimistic about that.

Conservative Movement

More evidence of the persistence of traditional attitudes is news that the Rabbinical Assembly’s ban on Conservative rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples will continue, the outcome of a strategic planning process. The RA reportedly does want to help rabbis “lead productive conversations with interfaith couples prior to their weddings, even though they can’t officiate.” The article describes a “deep divide,” possibly generational, among the movement’s rabbis, with some optimistic that the ban would not change even in the long term, and others openly defying it.

From our perspective, even if there are “productive conversations,” the ban will continue to make interfaith couples feel that they do not belong in Conservative synagogues.

On the other hand, the schedule for the United Synagogue’s March 2024 convention includes “Can We Talk About Patrilineal Descent.” The description includes: “Given the reality of modern families and ready availability of genetic testing, are our reasons for preserving matrilineal descent still valid? Does maintaining the status quo align with our egalitarian values? Our commitment to LGBTIA+ inclusion? How has it felt when we’ve needed to turn people away from our synagogues and institutions? Is the language of “completion” or “affirmation” instead of conversion sufficient to create meaningful portals of entry?” It’s a positive sign that these questions are being discussed.

Jewish Unity Efforts

In an effort to connect with the editors of the Jerusalem Post to submit the op-ed, I reached out for help to Sandy Cardin, a longtime friend and strong advocate for inclusion in the Jewish community. Sandy is Chair of the Board of the Global Jewry initiative. In my op-ed I said that efforts to build unity among Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, like Global Jewry and President Herzog’s Kol Ha’am, did not explicitly refer to the need to include interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds.

Sandy pointed me to new text on the Global Jewry website: “We believe in inclusivity and embrace Jews of all backgrounds, affiliations, and levels of observance. Whether you’re Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Just Jewish, exploring your Jewish identity or supporting your Jewish partner, you’ll find a warm and accepting space here.”

I asked the Jerusalem Post to change the statement about Global Jewry, which was no longer accurate, prior to publication, but they unfortunately did not.

I’m thrilled to see the inclusive language on the Global Jewry site, and thrilled that Sandy invited the Center to partner with Global Jewry. We look forward to participating as we continue to work with all who will listen to the call for a more inclusive unity among Jewish communities.

In Other News

I have mixed feelings about “There is a solution to 70% intermarriage among US Jews.” On the one hand, the author’s “solution” is to “make immigration [to Israel] easy, attractive and compelling for families who have intermarried” so that their children in turn will not intermarry, given the rarity of interfaith marriage in Israel. Not only is this unrealistic, it is based on an underlying attitude that interfaith marriage is bad. On the other hand, the author does call strongly for welcoming and embracing interfaith couples and their children, and even for Jewish weddings in Israel for children of interfaith couples. Sadly, that’s unrealistic too.

I liked “Building the Jewish Future One Bunk at a Time” because it says “Jewish camps are essential in building Jewish identity, creating lifelong Jewish friendships and nurturing future Jewish leaders” – which is great – and doesn’t say that attending camps leads to less interfaith marriage. I do wish the authors had included some mention of the importance of Jewish camps for the children of interfaith families though.

I liked a JTA article about the wedding of David Corenswet, the actor who will next play Superman, because it is so matter of fact that the actor’s rabbi, Edward Cohn in New Orleans, co-officiated his wedding in a Catholic church. The church’s wedding coordinator reportedly said, “The bride and groom were just so determined to intersperse the Jewish traditions with the Catholic traditions, which to me just enhanced the beauty and the strength of both faiths.” Rabbi Cohn said Jewishness is an important part of the actor’s life and that the couple intended to affiliate with a congregation. A model of inclusion keeping doors open to Jewish engagement.

This Torah portion commentary was very challenging – it says that Deuteronomy 23, 20-21 says that it is permissible to lend money and charge interest to a “gentile” but not to a fellow Jew. The author, an Orthodox rabbi, says this is not discrimination against those who are not Jewish, they are to be treated with justice and morality, but there is a preferred attitude towards Jews, our spiritual brothers, to be treated like siblings. I don’t know, sounds discriminatory to me.

Thanks to Susan Katz Miller for pointing out that in an otherwise fascinating article about the Bradley Cooper “Jewface” controversy about his prosthetic nose playing Leonard Bernstein, the author says, “I’m Jewish, and was raised culturally Jewish, but because I had a Jewish father and a Catholic mother and am therefore not a matrilineal Jew, I grew up hearing from various schmucks and nudniks that I was ‘not really Jewish,’ ‘not technically Jewish,’ and ‘not Jewish enough.’”

Finally, a very interesting piece on ableism and people with disabilities included this statement: “The presumption of normativity forces disabled folks to shoulder the burden of disclosure and do the work of negotiating access. Every disabled person I know has stories about the cost of living in a one-size-fits-all society, about being shut out by attitudes, assumptions and physical structures that demand everyone’s body and mind fit within the same basic norm. This isn’t only a disability story. Fat bodies, Black and brown bodies, Jewish bodies, Muslim bodies, femme bodies and queer, trans and nonbinary bodies — so many of us know the costs that normativity exacts.” I wish the author had included interfaith families among the groups disadvantaged by notions of normativity.

July 2023 News from the Center

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Progress

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

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

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

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

Missed Opportunities

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

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

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

Is This Really Necessary?

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

In Other News

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

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

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

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I hope your summer continues to be good,

June 2023 News from the Center

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Re-CHARGING Reform – More Silence and Missed Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Studies

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

In Other News

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

What Local Community Studies Tell Us About Interfaith Family Inclusion

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

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

Studies of Interfaith Families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Community Studies

A. Interfaith Families Connection to Jewish Community

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

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

B. Welcoming

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

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

C. What Interfaith Families Say About Welcoming and Inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dual Faith Families

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

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

What Can Be Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Our Post-Corona Vision Include Engaged Interfaith Families?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Judaism Is Not Just For Jews: The Lesson of Interfaith Families

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This op-ed appeared originally in the Forward and is reprinted with permission.

Now that nearly three out of four marriages among non-Orthodox Jews are interfaith, 84% of new households that include at least one non-Orthodox Jew are interfaith households. That means that the future vitality of every aspect of liberal Judaism depends on engaging increasing numbers of interfaith families in Jewish life. Yet instead of discussion of the issue in Jewish organizations and media, there’s deafening silence.

The silence around interfaith life from the organized Jewish world is doubly frustrating given the challenge that interfaith couples face — and in particular, the partners from different faith traditions. Many doubt that they can belong in Jewish groups, organizations and communities. That’s because in the traditional view, Judaism is for Jews; what matters is “being” Jewish, being part of the Jewish people. Those who identify as Jews are “in,” while a partner who is not a Jew is “out” or “other.”

Despite recent suggestions to the contrary, the truth of the matter is, interfaith couples don’t feel completely welcome. Many report an undercurrent of disapproval or feel they are treated as outsiders. Moreover, welcoming interfaith couples is a necessary first step.

But by itself, it is insufficient, a distinction that has been drawn by advocates for every other marginalized Jewish group. Take the Reform Movement’s resolutions concerning LGBTQ and transgender/gender non-conforming people, and people with disabilities: It commits to “integrate fully all Jews into the life of the community regardless of sexual orientation” and to “welcoming 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.” It also insists upon the Reform Movement’s “commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.”

But the movement’s latest resolution on interfaith marriage commits only to welcoming interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds, while also encouraging conversion.

Like every other marginalized group, it stands to reason that interfaith couples will not stay unless they are made to feel that they truly belong.

How can people who are not Jews feel that they truly belong in Jewish communities? That is the challenge of our time, and overcoming it requires a new understanding of interfaith marriage, and adapted attitudes and policies that support full inclusion.

First, we need to understand the foundational covenant as being not between God and the Jewish people, but between God and the people who are Jewishly engaged. Judaism is not just for Jews; it is for people who are “doing” Jewish, whether or not they identify as Jews, in a community that consists of other Jewishly-engaged people. This is radical, because it stands the traditional view on its head.

A rabbi told me once that it didn’t make sense for someone to say, “I live Jewishly but I’m not a Jew.” We need a new understanding of interfaith marriage in which that makes perfect sense.

Second, inclusion requires an adaptation of underlying attitudes towards the marginalized group. In the context of interfaith marriage, full inclusion means considering interfaith families as equal to inmarried families, and partners from different faith backgrounds as equal to Jews.

Unfortunately, examples of expressions of negative attitudes abound, including the “missing mazel tov” when Jewish leaders described Chelsea Clinton’s wedding as not a Jewish event; “expert” assumptions that Mark Zuckerberg’s intermarriage meant his children would not be Jewish (which later was disproved); denunciations from Israel of intermarriage as a “plague” or “catastrophe.”

We have quite a way to go before we consider partners from different faith traditions as equal. Even expressing a preference that our children marry Jews delivers a message of disapproval to the 72% of them who will intermarry anyway. Feeling disapproved of is not conducive to feeling belonging.

Third, inclusion requires adaptive change in the established system. In the context of interfaith marriage, adaptive change means not just considering, but treating interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds as equal.

What leadership roles can partners from different faith backgrounds take? In what rituals can they participate? How will we explain those policies and communicate our invitations to engage?

When Jews and Jewish organizations are fully inclusive, interfaith couples and the partners from different faith backgrounds can feel like they truly belong. With a new understanding of interfaith marriage, and adapted attitudes and policies, we can make this happen and secure the liberal future.