How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?

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published in eJewishPhilanthropy

I applauded in 2013 when Rabbi Rick Jacobs announced the Reform movement’s audacious hospitality initiative, and again in 2015 when my colleague April Baskin was appointed to lead it. But the recent release of the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit surfaces a deep question: just how audacious will our hospitality to interfaith families be?

The Toolkit is an excellent resource. I recommend it to every congregation, not just Reform. It offers guiding principles and concrete steps synagogues can take to self-evaluate, develop and implement efforts to welcome diverse populations. It builds on pioneering work by the Reform movement’s own Outreach Department, Big Tent Judaism, and InterfaithFamily.

But missing from the Toolkit is discussion or guidance about the difficult issues that I believe must be addressed for interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.

In 2000 I wrote an op-ed, Redefine Jewish Peoplehood, for Reform Judaism magazine, and a longer We Need a Religious Movement that is Totally Inclusive of Intermarried Jewish Families for InterfaithFamily. I said that we need to include – indeed, embrace – not only Jews but also their partners from different faith traditions, and their children, as “in,” as part of “us,” as included in the Jewish people more broadly defined as the Jewish community. Not as “out,” “other,” not allowed to participate and engage fully in Jewish life. Instead of focusing on identity, on whether a person “is” Jewish, I said we needed to focus on engagement, on whether a person wants to “do” Jewish.

It’s not surprising that in the seventeen years since there has been some but not enough change. This kind of fundamental shift is hard, and generates exactly the issues that I believe Jews and their communities need to address.

One issue is the preference Jews express for their children marrying other Jews. A friend who has a lesbian daughter in a long-term relationship told me last week that he hated it when well-intentioned people said to him, “it’s wonderful that your daughter has a partner – but wouldn’t you prefer that she were straight?” No, he wouldn’t, thank you.

The same kind of preferential thinking applies to interfaith couples, and I’ve been guilty of it myself; once when a friend wanted to introduce my son to a young woman, I said “is she Jewish”? right in front of my daughter’s husband who is not Jewish himself. (Fortunately, it gave me a chance to tell him I loved him just as he was.) Jewish leaders and their communities need to address the attitudes that Jews have about partners from different faith traditions, and that consider relationships with them to be “sub-optimal.”

Another issue is the attitude that partners from different faith traditions are welcome but with limitations, that their patrilineal children aren’t “really” Jewish or Jewish enough, or that conversion or some new special status like “ger toshav” is the answer to inclusion and recognition. Partners from different faith traditions want to be welcomed as they are, without ulterior motives that they convert, and they don’t want their children’s status questioned. Creating new categories of who is more “in” or “out” and which status confers more or less benefits, is not inclusive. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and explicitly address their policies – and assert the Jewishness of patrilineals in dialogue with other movements.

A third issue is ritual participation policies, like the parent from a different faith tradition not being allowed to pass the Torah or join in an aliyah at the bar or bat mitzvah of the child they have raised with Judaism. Those parents could say the Torah blessing with full integrity because their family is part of the “us” to whom the Torah was given. They want to feel united with their family and want their child to see them participate and be honored fully. Maintaining the boundary that only a Jew can have an aliyah excludes them. Jewish leaders and their communities need to examine and articulate their policies, and whether they will allow anyone who wants to participate fully to do so.

After the Cohen Center’s recent research showed strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues, it is no longer tenable for liberal rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is not good for Jewish continuity. Jewish leaders should ensure that that at least some of their synagogue’s clergy officiate. It is time for the Reform rabbinate to change the resolution still on the CCAR’s books that disapproves of officiation. Statements of position set a tone that matters, and bold leadership helps people adapt their attitudes to address new realities. That’s why Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, should follow the Reconstructionists’ lead by admitting and ordaining intermarried rabbinic students. The growth and vitality of liberal synagogues depends on engaging more interfaith families. What better role model for them could there be than an intermarried rabbi?

Finally, the real frontier of audacious hospitality is how Jewish communities will respond to couples who think they may or say they want to “do both.” What appears to be a growing population wants to educate their children about both religious traditions in the home, without merging them together. When they knock on Jewish doors – when couples ask rabbis to co-officiate at their weddings, or parents ask synagogue religious schools to accept children who are receiving formal education in another religion – they mostly get “no” for an answer. While more rabbis appear to be officiating for interfaith couples, most won’t co-officiate, saying they want a commitment to a Jewish home and family. But participating in those weddings holds the door open to later Jewish commitment for couples who haven’t decided yet, while refusing to risks shutting that door. Similarly, while we don’t have to recommend or favor raising children as “both,” providing Jewish education to them if they seek it opens doors to later engagement.

The more confident we are that Jewish traditions are so compelling that people will gravitate to them once exposed, the more we will openly discuss these issues, dismantle barriers, and articulate and implement a totally inclusive – yes, a truly audacious – hospitality. People who say Jewish communities are already welcoming enough, and don’t need to talk about or do anything specific for interfaith families, are out of touch; Jewish communities can do a lot to attract and engage interfaith families with explicit statements, invitations, and programs designed for them, especially meet-ups and discussion groups where new couples can talk out how to have religious traditions in their lives.

As summer approaches, many congregational rabbis are thinking about their High Holiday sermons. The Reform movement will gather again in December at its biennial. Will Jewish leaders seize these occasions to forthrightly address just how audacious their hospitality to interfaith families needs to be?

Meeting People Where They Are

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Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” He wants to “meet people where they are,” and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be “fully observant.”

I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I don’t have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and “doable” will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married “where they are” is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.

As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:

We really don’t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage….

If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status – so they leave.

Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:

I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.

Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would “level the playing field of Jewish identity” – and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all b’nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.

But these are band-aids that don’t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be “passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.

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In other news, the Reform Movement’s Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, April Baskin,  has announced the piloting of an Audacious Hospitality Toolkit, a “suite of resources” that will “enable [Reform Jewish leaders] to engage and lead the diverse facets within our community more effectively, as well as enhance all aspects of synagogue life – from programming, worship, governance, staffing, and more – to increasingly reflect that diversity.” It will be interesting to see what the Toolkit says about engaging interfaith families when it is released – the movement’s description of audacious hospitality does not give particular emphasis to that audience:

Jewish populations such as Jews by choice and those exploring Judaism, Jews of color, Jews who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer, Jews who live with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities, multiracial families, millennials, the aging Jewish population, Jews who are unaffiliated and uninspired by Jewish communal offerings, and of course, the evolving needs of interfaith and intermarried couples and families, requires our focused attention.

Widely Diverse Views: Passover, Officiation, Selling Judaism

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Attitudes about intermarriage – and Jewish “stuff” in general – seem so far apart at times, are we riding on the same bus?

Passover

Here’s a timely example, with Passover approaching. The Boston Jewish Advocate is owned by Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff, a Hassidic rebbe. His wife writes a weekly column, Ask the Rebbetzin. In the March 24, 2017 issue, someone asked if a Christian friend who is curious about Judaism could attend her Passover seder. The Rebbetzin said that many rabbinic authorities say that “it is not appropriate (and many say forbidden) to have non-Jews at the Pesach Seder.”

Twelve years ago, in April 2005, I wrote a letter to the editor saying I was mortified when the Rebbe made the same statement in the same newspaper. I asked whether he meant to suggest that intermarried parents from different faith backgrounds should be exiled from their own families’ seders, and questioned how many of those parents would want to raise their children with Judaism if Jewish leaders took that position.

This time around I had a respectful email exchange with the Rebbetzin. She explained that traditional Halachah (Jewish law) states that people who are not Jewish should not participate in the seder; that traditionally observant Jews are bound to follow it whether they agree or not; and that others may take a different approach.

I want to be respectful, and I’m in no position to say that members of a Hassidic community should welcome people who are not Jewish to their seders. But on the other hand, when Jewish leaders from that kind of community make a statement in the broader Jewish community that would serve to repel intermarried parents from Jewish life, it contributes to a general negative attitude about intermarriage that isn’t helpful.

At perhaps the other extreme, I loved Kate Bigam’s piece on ReformJudaism.org, Our Non-Traditional, Interfaith Seder: A Little Creativity and a Lot of Love, about her preparations for her first seder with her soon-to-be husband, who grew up Catholic. She wanted to “show him a good one” and focused on assembling what goes on the seder plate; then he arrived with a beautiful seder plate as a gift (shades of the famous O. Henry story The Gift of the Magi). They enjoyed working through the haggadah, but as she hadn’t prepared dinner, they planned to go to a taco place to eat, but ended up at a Thai restaurant instead. I loved her conclusion:

Traditionalists will say we didn’t do Passover right, and maybe that’s true. My Judaism is not perfect, but it’s genuine and passionate and important to me, even when I get a little creative about it. I’ll always remember Mike’s and my first seder together, and I look forward to many more to come.

I had to wonder what the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin would say about that non-traditional seder! There is something core about the seder ritual and more fundamentally about the meaning of the holiday to which both the Rebbetzin and Kate Bigam are very dedicated, but circling around that core are very divergent approaches. It’s easy to say that because they are in such different communities that are so far apart, it doesn’t matter what they think of each other. But I would like to hope that the Rebbe and Rebbetzin could respect the non-traditional approach the way I try to respect their traditional one; that would mean being more careful about statements they make to the broad Jewish community.

Officiation, and Conservative Judaism

Last week I blogged about the Conservative movement allowing synagogues to allow people who are not Jewish to be members, with a reference to the relatively new and apparently increasing discussion among Conservative rabbis about changing the prohibition against their officiating for interfaith couples. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a thoughtful and highly-regarded Conservative rabbi, has weighed in with To Officiate or Not at Intermarriages. Rabbi Cosgrove reveals that there was a “special off-the-record session” at the recent convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbis’ association) indicating that “as a movement we clearly are squirming.” I have good reason to believe the session was a presentation by people from the Cohen Center at Brandeis about their game-changing study showing that interfaith couples who have a rabbi officiate have a higher rate of Jewish engagement.

Rabbi Cosgrove says that if the data shows that officiation has positive impact, and if it is not at all surprising that if rabbis turn their backs on couples the couples will turn their backs on Judaism, then the argument that Conservative rabbis should serve the couples is a forceful one. But he is not persuaded. He says couples who are pre-disposed to be engaged might be more likely to have a rabbi – but the study found that controlling for childhood Jewish background and college experiences, intermarrieds who had sole Jewish clergy officiation were still more Jewishly engaged. He says that although Jewish law “can, and oftentimes should, change,” Jewish law has the right to limit what it validates. And he says that he “unapologetically want[s] young Jews to marry other Jews;” officiation at intermarriages “send[s] the message that all choices are equal, a message that I do not think wise given the undisputed place in-marriage has as the single most important determinant in ensuring Jewish continuity.”

I respect Rabbi Cosgrove’s position but think it is misguided. Once he acknowledges that Jewish law can and oftentimes should change, it’s no longer a debate about Jewish law, it’s about the consequences of the positions taken – which brings us right back to couples turning their backs on Judaism when rabbis turn their backs on them.

Rabbi Cosgrove says he wants the Conservative movement’s message to be: we want you to marry Jews; when you don’t the path to conversion is warm and embracing and doable; if that’s not an option, we will help you build a Jewish family and future while respecting your spiritual integrity. Unfortunately this is the same message that the Conservative movement has been sending for the past twenty years, with no positive results to show. Rabbi Cosgrove says that when an intermarriage occurs, “we must be … passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Refusing to officiate seriously undermines any warm embrace. Daniel Solomon had a great story in the Forward about the Conservative movement’s recent change in membership rules, and his title says it all: Conservatives Welcome Non-Jews – But Will They Be Second-Class Citizens In the Synagogue? Solomon quotes Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as saying they wanted to “deepen the sense of welcome for those married to people of another faith,” but Solomon told me that Rabbi Wernick said the USCJ is going to be issuing guidelines that say non-Jews can’t serve on a synagogue board and the membership resolution will not change prohibitions adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly that do not allow people who are not Jewish to handle the Torah during services.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue wrote what I found to be a stunning explanation of The Power of ‘Yes’ on Interfaith Officiation. Rabbi Buchdahl did not officiate for the first ten years of her rabbinate. She learned that:

[S]aying “No” often leads to a profound alienation from the Jewish community. It pains me now, looking back, to think of the many children of my congregation who came to me with their non-Jewish partners, committed to having a Jewish home, and how I turned them away. Many of them left synagogue life permanently. I could no longer bear the hypocrisy I felt in refusing to stand with them for one of the most important days of their lives, but then inviting them to become synagogue members the next day. This could not be the right decision for our Jewish future.

Rabbi Buchdahl says she is now an “impassioned supporter of rabbinic officiation for a couple who commits to the creation of a Jewish home (the very same standard I apply when asked to officiate at a wedding between two Jews).” Rabbi Buchdahl finds power in saying “yes” in part because of the deep relationships couples build with their officiating rabbis. “Then, on their wedding day — one of the most consequential and memorable days of their lives — Jewish ritual becomes the vehicle for their transformation into a family.”

Over the years, I’ve talked to many rabbis who balked at saying the traditional phrase that consecrates a marriage, “under the laws of Moses and Israel,” for interfaith couples. But in what is to me a great advance in thinking on the issue, Rabbi Buchdahl says that “if a non-Jewish partner is willing to live in a home ‘under the laws of Moses and Israel,’ to study Jewish laws and practice, and to raise any future children as Jews, then a rabbi can consecrate that commitment with integrity.” In another great advance to my mind, she says that those who take Central Synagogue’s Exploring Judaism course, but chose not to convert, may not become “b’nai Yisrael” (children of Israel), but they become “bonei Yisrael, builders of Israel and our communities.” She says both b’nai Yisrael and bonei Yisrael are deserving of our blessing under the chuppah.

Of course there is a further end to the spectrum: some would say that officiating only when an interfaith couples commits to the creation of a Jewish home does not go far enough. Rabbi Buchdahl says that she will not “co-officiate with a leader from another faith; if the wedding is marking the end of a couple’s connection to Judaism, instead of a new beginning, then I have no proper place there.” It’s not clear that she meant that co-officiation does mark the end of a couple’s connection to Judaism, and I don’t believe that to be the case. But I’m very grateful to Rabbi Buchdahl for her thoughtful explanation of a position that I believe will clearly engage more interfaith couples in Jewish life than Rabbi Cosgrove’s.

Selling Judaism

Lastly, InterfaithFamily had a mention in the unlikely venue of BloombergBusinessweek, Selling Judaism, Religion Not Included. The article starts out with someone not Jewish celebrating Shabbat – Shabbat is “poised to become the new yoga practice.” Then it moves to Danya Shults, an intermarried Jew who started Arq, “a lifestyle company that seeks to sell people of all faiths on a trendy, tech-literate, and, above all, accessible version of Jewish traditions” that include holiday planning guides. The mention of InterfaithFamily quotes Rabbi Ari Moffic from InterfaithFamily/Chicago as saying “You can do Jewish … even if you’re not Jewish. You want to unplug? It’s called Shabbat, and we’re the experts on it.” The article also mentions Honeymoon Israel, which sends “nontraditional (interfaith, same-sex)” couples on trips to Israel. Everything is referred to as “cultural marketing.”

I’m just not sure that celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays and traveling to Israel isn’t “religious,” as the article title suggests. Of course it depends on what “religious” means – and I’ll have to leave that for other posts. And I’m not saying that cultural marketing is a bad thing, far from it. To me, what related this article to the Passover and officiation issues is the very big factor of welcoming and inclusion, and those who are interested in perpetuating “religious” traditions should take notice. Because what motivated Shults and her Presbyterian husband to look for something different and to start Arq was that “We never really found a [religious] community that matched what we were looking for, especially for” him. “Many of the synagogues that purported to be inclusive turned out to have an agenda, such as trying to get [him] to convert or cultivating the couple’s political support for Israel.” We’ve got a long way to go on the welcoming and inclusion front.

Best wishes for a meaningful Passover – when, after all, we are charged to remember to welcome the stranger, because we were strangers ourselves.

Change May Be Afoot in the More “Conservative” Communities

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It’s been quiet on the intermarriage front for a while; it feels like most people’s attention is understandably in the political realm these days. But in the past two weeks there has been interesting news and comment on intermarriage in the more traditional, conservative parts of the Jewish community.

When people talk about intermarriage, for example about the 72% rate of intermarriage since 2000 among non-Orthodox Jews, the general understanding is that intermarriage isn’t much of a phenomenon in the Orthodox world. A fascinating blog post on intermarriage in the Orthodox world, The Rise of Interfaith Marriage in the Modern Orthodox Community, suggests that that may not be the case. The blog’s creator, Alan Brill, estimates that 7-8% of young Modern Orthodox Jews are intermarried, and says that “ordinary Modern Orthodox Jews are talking about this topic,…” He also says “cases of full Orthodox conversion … are now quite common.”

Most of the blog post is a guest post by “Ruvie,” a Modern Orthodox man, writing about his feelings about his son’s marriage to someone who was not Jewish – feelings that aren’t that different from those of many non-Orthodox Jews.

Ruvie says he is aware of five interfaith marriages in the past year and a half among children of his observant Modern Orthodox friends. “All parents went through various stages of shame, anger, confusion and guilt.” “This is something new and growing in the MO community.” He refers to estimates of 5% to 20% intermarriage rates in the Orthodox world.

Ruvie complains that there is a taboo about talking about intermarriage that no longer exists in other controversial topics in Orthodoxy, like homosexuality and people abandoning Orthodoxy:

Rabbis are afraid to be publicly associated with this topic. Parents are reluctant to talk to friends, Rabbis, and extended family. They first are embarrassed and in denial then hope and pray it goes away as a phase not wanting to alienate their children – or they fight and alienate their children.

Ruvie describes the reactions of his friends and himself:

On a personal level, for myself and others, there was a certain amount of: shame in being in this situation – didn’t discuss with my closest friends until later, anger at our ourselves (as failures) and our educational system, confusion – how could this have happened and where is my allegiance – son, family, community and Judaism? [A]nd lastly a certain amount of guilt.

It is very clear that Ruvie’s son may have left Modern Orthodoxy but has not left Jewish life. The officiating rabbi recommended that the young woman take an introduction to Judaism course and during the course she decided to undergo a Conservative conversion. Before the wedding the son asked the father to put up a mezuzah at his apartment; after the wedding the son asked his mother where he could ritually immerse their dishes.

It is also very clear that Ruvie prioritizes his relationship with ­­­his son:­­­

My son’s happiness and ascent from loneliness is an important factor in the equation. I realize that being supportive leads to possible normalization of interfaith marriage. As a parent the best interest and wellbeing of my child supersedes other considerations that are communal in nature.

Ruvie’s conclusion: “There is a lack of open conversation and dialogue on this topic in our community. Let’s begin now.”

The Conservative movement currently restricts synagogue membership to Jews. The recent news, described in a JTA article, Conservative movement proposes allowing non-jews as synagogue members, is that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the association of Conservative synagogues) is asking the synagogues to vote in March to allow individual synagogues to decide whether to grant membership to non-Jews. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of USCJ, said that “the current standards don’t make sense in a world where many intermarried couples are active participants in Conservative congregations” and that “the language of ‘only Jews can be members of a synagogue’ makes it seem like a non-Jew who is connected is not a member of that community.”

Rabbi Wernick also said that the USCJ is not changing the definition of who counts as Jewish: “What we’re trying to do with this is distinguish between community and covenant.” But Rabbi Chuck Simon, head of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and the most outspoken Conservative leader on intermarriage issues, recently created a pamphlet in which he essentially recommends that the Conservative movement adopt patrilineal descent. The Elephant in the Room: Conservative Judaism and the Patrilineal Question.

It will be interesting to see movement in the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative parts of the community towards more acceptance and welcoming of interfaith families.

There was also a piece on eJewishPhilanthropy about Hebrew College’s new certificate program in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement, and a positive comment by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in the Forward.

 

Late 2016 Round-up: Major Convening, Major Research… What’s Next?

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I think it’s safe to say that we would all have to agree that an awful lot has happened in the past two months. That includes developments in the field of engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I summarize here.

On October 10, eJewishPhilanthropy published my review of a demographic study of British Jews that I found to be unfortunately negative about intermarriage, given trends indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice that I thought supported increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.

The October 26 Interfaith Opportunity Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish community’s agenda. eJewishPhilanthropy published Jodi Bromberg’s and my report on new understandings of how to influence engagement, new efforts to engage interfaith families, and the need for an attitudinal “narrative shift” about intermarriage discussed at the Summit.

The Cohen Center at Brandeis on the day of the Summit released a very important study on the impact of rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. My op-ed, Are Rabbis Who Refuse to Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?, was published in the Forward and eJewishPhilanthropy. I said that it is no longer tenable for rabbis not to officiate on the grounds that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews,” when the new research shows strong association between officiation and interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues.

The Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem released an important report in November on definitions of Jewishness in a time of fluid identity. In my blog post, what I found promising was the apparent consensus, among  over 700 Jewish leaders from Israel, the US and other countries, on the need to be welcoming to interfaith couples. However, I noted a conflict with an accompanying desire to maintain community standards that express a preference for in-marriage.

In November CJP released the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis. In my blog post, I note that the Study confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of CJP’s welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that recognizes multiple patterns of engagement and supports programmatic efforts targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.

I added a new “Reports” section on this site with summaries of important studies, including the officiation research, the JPPI definitions of Jewishness report, and the 2015 Boston Study.

We are clearly in a time of increased interest in the field, with new convenings and research supporting increased efforts. The question that remains is how to make a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families a reality.

Continuing Promising News from Boston

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Every ten years since 1965, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Boston federation, has conducted a community study. The 2005 study electrified the Jewish media with the finding that 60% of interfaith couples in Boston were raising their children as Jews. The 2015 Study, conducted by the Cohen Center and Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis, reveals a wealth of information that strongly supports continued programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly. The Study is also important for creating an Index of Jewish Engagement that identifies five groups with distinctive patterns of engaging in Jewish life and community; the Index is promising as a basis for future targeted programmatic efforts.

A detailed review of the 2015 Study can be found here. The highlights on the extent of intermarriage include:

  • there are 248,000 Jews in Boston, making it the fourth largest community in the US as defined by federation service area (after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago), representing 7% of the area population, and having increased 4.6% since 2005.
  • 47% of couples in Jewish households are interfaith couples, 53% are two-Jewish couples (of the latter, 5% include a convert).
  • Of Jews in Boston, 8% are Israeli, 7% are Russian born or speaking, and 7% are LGBTQ; 70% of married Russian Jews are in interfaith relationships, 20% of Israeli Jews and 69% of LGBTQ Jews.

The highlights on the impact of intermarriage include:

  • 69% of children of intermarried couples are raised with Judaism, 57% exclusively Jewish, compared to 94% of children of inmarried couples:
    • 42% are Jews by religion, compared to 65% of children of inmarried
    • 15% are Jews not by religion, compared to 28% of children of inmarried
    • 12% are Jewish and another religion, compared to 1% of children of inmarried
    • 21% have no religion, compared to 5% of children of inmarried
    • 10% are another religion
  • 27% of the intermarried (37% of the intermarried with children) are synagogue members, compared to 57% of the inmarried (64% of the inmarried with children).
  • 21% of children of the intermarried are getting part-time (19%) or day school (2%) Jewish education; 83% of the intermarried with children attended services in the past year, 100% list Hanukkah candles, 93% attended a Seder, 59% light Shabbat candles sometimes, 22% follow some Kosher practice; 60% of the intermarried donate to Jewish causes; 86% are concerned with worldwide anti-Semitism; 72% feel very much (16%), somewhat (34%) or a little (22%) emotionally connected to Israel.
  • Interestingly, the intermarried score higher than the inmarried on volunteering for all non-Jewish causes, including education, poverty/social justice, medical/health, arts/culture and political activism.

The Study notes comparisons between intermarried and inmarried Jews on numerous other Jewish behaviors and attitudes, all summarized in a table in the detailed review.

The Study creates an Index of Jewish Engagement based on a statistical “cluster analysis” of fourteen Jewish behaviors, and identifies five patterns: the Minimally Involved (17% of all Jews) and the Immersed (15%) at the ends of the spectrum, and three middle groups: the Familial (24%) who engage primarily through family and home-based behaviors, the Affiliated (26%) who engage through family and communal organizations, and the Cultural (18%) who engage through family and cultural activities. Of the intermarried, 27% are Minimally Involved, 30% are Familial, 28% are Affiliated, 11% are Cultural, 5% are Immersed.

The apparent motivation for creating the Index was the feeling that dichotomies like “engaged/not engaged” and “religious/not religious,” and comparisons between denominations, “are inadequate descriptors of contemporary Jewish behavior.” “Boston Jewry is characterized by diverse ways of being involved in Jewish life…”  The Index was designed to identify opportunities for increased engagement that can be targeted towards groups with different needs and interests.

The Boston Jewish Community, led by CJP, has been probably the most welcoming to interfaith couples and families of any American community; CJP has been funding programs targeted to engage interfaith families since the late 1990’s. The 2015 Study, like the earlier one in 2005, confirms the very large extent of intermarriage in the community, and validates the wisdom of the welcoming approach, with high rates of intermarried couples raising their children as Jews and promising rates of engagement in many other Jewish behaviors.

Of course more needs to be and can be done, and the Study suggests several opportunities. One is the high percentage of intermarried Russian born and speaking Jews at which programming might be directed. Another is the relatively low percentages of intermarried couples who send their children to Jewish pre-school (12%, compared to 27% of inmarried), overnight camp (7%, compared to 27%) and on Israel trips (8%, compared to 37%). The growth market that these programmatic efforts need to focus on clearly is the children of the intermarried.

The percentages of intermarried couples in the various groups identified by the Index of Jewish Engagement, and the behaviors associated with those groups, also suggest avenues of opportunity. If the community wanted to move intermarried couples from the Minimally Involved group (27% of the intermarried compared to 17% of all Jews) and the Familial group (30% of the intermarried compared to 24% of all Jews) towards the Affiliated and the Cultural, then the organizations (around which the Affilated are involved) and the cultural activities (around which the Cultural are involved) could focus on efforts to attract and welcome more intermarried couples.

The Study doesn’t flesh out much about what some important categories mean. For example, 3% of Jewish adults are Jews “of multiple religions” and 12% of the children of intermarried couples are Jewish “and another religion.” The Study doesn’t report on any data that might illuminate what those labels mean or the behaviors of the people so described. Hopefully, more will be forthcoming.

Finally, the Study reveals some promising data on changing attitudes. The percentage of Jews who feel it is very important that their grandchildren are raised Jewish is 46%, higher than the percentage who feel it is very important that their children marry someone Jewish (31%). Even in the Immersed group, only 63% said it was very important that their child marry someone Jewish – but 85% want Jewish grandchildren. By welcoming and providing programming designed to attract and engage interfaith families Jewishly, the Boston Jewish community clearly is helping to make that desire an increasing reality.

Are Rabbis Who Refuse To Marry Interfaith Couples Hurting Jewish Continuity?

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published by The Forward and on eJewishPhilanthropy
reprinted with permission

The Cohen Center’s new study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, is a game-changer. The many rabbis who don’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples won’t engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.

Addressing the issue of rabbinic officiation at intermarriages was a major focus of InterfaithFamily’s (IFF) work since it started fifteen years ago. In the early years, IFF published many first-person accounts of the hurt and rejection couples experienced; one of the most striking articles from 2002 is titled Why I Am a Unitarian – you can guess the reason why. But no one seemed to pay much attention.

In early 2008, a study by the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys, confirmed that the negative experience many interfaith couples had seeking Jewish clergy to officiate at their weddings was a “huge turnoff.” Finally, I thought, people would pay attention to research by a respected academic – but it didn’t happen.

In March 2010, the CCAR, after three years of study, released a report that acknowledged the opportunity to engage interfaith families Jewishly through rabbinic outreach, and said that a range of practices, including officiation under certain circumstances, was “respected.” But it also said that encouraging in-marriage was important because of the greater likelihood of continuity, and left standing the CCAR’s 1973 resolution that officially disapproves of officiation because intermarriage is “should be discouraged.” To my knowledge, no one knows how many Reform rabbis officiate for interfaith couples; most published comments say “about half.”

InterfaithFamily never argued with rabbis who said that their position on officiation was based on their relationship with Jewish law. But it’s clear that the opposition of many to officiation is based not on theology but on demographics: the belief that intermarriage is “bad for the Jews.” I vividly remember meeting a Reform rabbi on the North Shore of Chicago who told me she didn’t officiate for interfaith couples because of Steven Cohen’s research showing that intermarried couples were not Jewishly engaged. When prominent Conservative rabbi David Wolpe explained in 2013 why he didn’t officiate for interfaith couples, the first reason he gave was that “invariably” in an intermarriage the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less. That’s why the new research on the impact of officiation is so important.

When Len Saxe discussed the new study at the recent Interfaith Opportunity Summit, one of his slides generated an audible gasp among the attendees: 85% of intermarried couples who had only Jewish clergy officiate at their wedding are raising their children Jewish, compared to 94% of in-married couples who have Jewish clergy officiate, and 23% of intermarried couples who have other officiants. Moreover, 34% of intermarried couples with sole Jewish clergy officiants are synagogue members, compared to 41% of in-married couples, and 7% of intermarrieds with other officiants.

As careful researchers, Saxe and his team don’t claim definitive causation, but the association between officiation and later Jewish engagement is striking. “Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.”

After this research, Reform rabbis who don’t officiate are refusing to take action they are permitted by their association to take that leads to interfaith couples raising their children as Jews and joining synagogues. That can’t be a tenable position any longer, and it’s time for the CCAR to change its official position.

But this isn’t just a Reform issue. At the Interfaith Opportunity Summit, several Conservative rabbis expressed deep concern about their association’s position on officiation. One said, “we massage the message but at the end of the day we are saying ‘no’ and it is real and painful.” A prominent Conservative rabbi earlier this year said it’s time to allow Conservative rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. The new research supports efforts to change the RA’s policy from within.

It’s time for Judaism’s religious leaders, instead of making interfaith couples feel that their relationships are disapproved, to truly embrace them. What could be more welcoming than a rabbi embracing an interfaith couple at the nodal moment of the wedding? Rabbis should be leading the effort to change the dominant narrative away from ambivalence about intermarriage and the legitimacy of the intermarried.

With 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying, efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly are essential. They cannot succeed without a dramatic shift in attitudes towards the positive.

Welcome Intermarried But Maintain Norms Preferring In-marriage? A Review of the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

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logoThe Jewish People Policy Institute has issued a rather amazing report, Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity, a project headed by Shmuel Rosner and John Ruskay. The report is based on the 2016 Jewish World Dialogue, which involved surveys and discussions in which 715 highly engaged Jewish leaders from around the world participated. The JPPI is a prominent Jerusalem-based think tank chaired by Stuart Eizenstat, Dennis Ross and Leonid Nevzlin.

I describe the report as amazing because of the realistic and somewhat positive tone with which it describes intermarriage, and because of the great emphasis it places on being welcoming. At the same time, the report expresses a profound conundrum: whether it is possible to be genuinely welcoming of intermarried families, and also maintain communal norms that prefer in-marriage over intermarriage. I don’t think the Dialogue participants or the authors of the report go quite far enough to support the genuine welcoming that I believe is needed.

The Importance of Welcoming

The main finding of the report sets up the conundrum: there is remarkable consensus among engaged Jews regarding the need for the Jewish world (1) to be inclusive and welcoming toward all those who seek to participate in Jewish life, but also (2) to maintain selective communal norms. (emphasis added)

“Twenty-five years after the American National Jewish Population Study revealed the substantial increase in intermarriage in an open society, most Jewish leadership groups strive to seed, nurture, and strengthen a broad range of quality Jewish cultural and educational programs and a communal environment that welcomes all who seek to participate.” (emphasis added) (9)

The main recommendations of the report include striking support for programmatic efforts to welcome and engage interfaith families:

  • to “seed and support programs that reach out to Jews with weak identities and/or those whose Jewish status may be uncertain but still seek to learn and engage in Jewish life.”
  • “[T]he government of Israel, Jewish federations and philanthropies should continue to invest, both to encourage as many Jews as possible to intensify their engagement with Judaism, and also to create a welcoming environment.”
  • to “acknowledge those who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, in terms of behavior and self-identity, but have not yet undergone conversion and become fully fledged members of the Jewish people.” (10-12)

The endorsement of the need to be welcoming to people in interfaith relationships is extremely heartening, especially considering that the report is a product of an Israel-based think tank and involved many Israeli participants. Even in the area of Israel-Diaspora relations, the emphasis on welcoming is striking: “Jews around the world expect Israel to offer a welcoming environment to all those wishing to participate in Jewish life and identify with the Jewish people.” (9)

Attitudes and Norms

The rub with being welcoming comes with what communal norms are to be maintained, and whether that can be done while still being welcoming. “[N]orms are needed to maintain the Jewish people as a collective, and prevent it from disintegrating into a fragmented and diffuse collection of groups and individuals.” (10)

The key chapter “Jewishness Meets Intermarriage” starts with a brief review of statistics showing high rates of intermarriage, such that “[M]ost Jews understand that the Jewish community, except in Israel, is gradually becoming one for which interfaith marriage is normative…,” together with surveys showing that intermarried families have a weaker connection than in-married families to the Jewish community and to Judaism. (67-68)

Dialogue participants were asked a series of questions that ascertain their attitudes towards intermarriage. The first question was whether the Jewish community should encourage Jews to marry other Jews, whether because doing so might succeed, or to make a symbolic declaration that in-marriage is preferable. Even though the participants expect intermarriage will continue to be a significant feature of Jewish life, more than 80% believed the community ought to encourage in-marriage.

The authors note that these participants “want the community to invest in measures that according to their [own] assessment are not going to completely alter the trend of intermarriage (some might still hope that the trend can be somewhat reversed).”  (68-69) The authors also note that it is not clear what the programmatic implications of encouraging in-marriage would be: “after trying to promote it for many years, no magic bullet has been found for this endeavor – only maintaining a certain communal norm, welcoming all people, and providing opportunities for Jewish learning and living. Essentially, doing everything possible to encourage distanced Jews to intensify their involvement with Judaism.” (69-70)

Dialogue participants were also asked whether intermarriage could be a blessing for the future of Judaism. The authors aptly summarize the argument: If non-Jews intermarry and agree in higher numbers – “as they do” – to raise Jewish children, the Jewish community no longer “loses” Jews to intermarriage, it “gains” non-Jews and their children who become part of the community. But again, “Even as they see a reality that cannot be reversed, and even as they hear the many success stories of integration of intermarried couples into the community, and even as they hear some of their leaders celebrate intermarriage as an opportunity for growth – they remain doubtful.” (72)

The authors locate the source of this hesitation in the studies that show lesser engagement among intermarried families. Many of them cannot overlook the studies that repeatedly show that intermarriage leads to a lesser engagement with Judaism and are not certain that is it within the community’s capabilities to bring interfaith families to the level of engagement of in-married families. (72)

Dialogue participants were not asked whether being Jewish requires a commitment to Jewishness alone (whether religious or peoplehood exclusivity). The authors say this is a question in need of exploration, as there is a growing share of Jews who do not see their Jewishness as exclusive. (75)

The one communal norm the report addresses is Jewish leadership: while many Jews want intermarried families to be full participants in Jewish life, they still have an inclination to preserve some symbolic features that point to the advantage, from a communal viewpoint, of in-marriage over intermarriage. (75) Thus, “Jews want their religious leaders to be unquestionably Jewish, and most of them want their communal leaders to be Jewish.” There is less agreement on whether a communal leader must have a Jewish spouse. (86)

The authors make an interesting comment about the “leader as role model” argument: “The question of ‘leader as role model’ becomes significant… only when the encouraged ‘model’ is an in-married Jewish family. Clearly this is what most Dialogue participants believed to be the case.” This is a very clear example of an underlying attitude that supports maintaining a norm.

The Conundrum

I have argued elsewhere that it is extremely difficult if even possible to encourage in-marriage and at the same time genuinely welcome the intermarried. Expressions of preference for in-marriage risk making those who intermarry feel that their relationship is sub-optimal and disapproved. The authors recognize this when they raise the question, “What if encouraging in-marriage alienates intermarried couples – an alienation that Dialogue participants were acutely worried about.” “Obviously, a strong desire to be ‘welcoming’… could be complicated by a campaign to encourage in-marriage.” (70) Similarly, if leaders don’t see the potential benefit from intermarriage, they will be less inclined to make efforts to engage interfaith families. The authors suggest that Jewish leaders can argue in favor of the model of the in-married Jewish family “without it implying the justification of criticism of Jews who made the personal decision to marry a non-Jew” (89); I don’t think that is the case.

Relying on studies showing lesser engagement of intermarried families is suspect when the community has not been welcoming and when very little effort has been made to “invest in interfaith families” with programming targeted to engage them. Again, the authors recognize this: “[P]roponents of outreach policies [argue] not that intermarriage is a blessing, but rather that with the right policies (being more welcoming, investing in interfaith families etc.) the potential is there for a beneficial effect on the community.” (73)

These expressions of attitudes of Jewish leaders are extremely important; as the authors note, “[C]onnected Jews make the communal rules. It is highly engaged and connected Jews who grasp the challenges, and attempt to tackle them. These Jews, participants in our groups, seemed somewhat readier than we had expected to make definitive assertions concerning the value of in-marriage to the community and its long term interests.” (72) The authors say “It is fair to suspect that had the Dialogue included more Jews of no religion, more disconnected Jews, and more unaffiliated Jews, the answers … would have been different.” (71-72) I suspect the same would be true if more less- and moderately- engaged Jews and their partners were included; the leaders may be behind the rest of the community. In the report’s recommendations, the authors say that the community “accepts the fact that many Jews who are important to the larger community marry non-Jewish spouses;” “acceptance” in my opinion is not a warm enough response to achieve the engagement that the community appears to want to achieve.

I do see promise if one of the recommendations of the report is implemented: to create communities of practice that will develop “best practices in dealing with the broad range of contemporary Jews and Jewish groups,” “leadership training programs so leaders can deepen their understanding of the new milieu,” and welcoming language and messaging in organizational materials. (11)

Definitions of Jewishness and Interfaith Families

The report includes a fascinating discussion of definitions of Jewishness that have implications for engaging interfaith families Jewishly, which I have summarized separately. One part of the discussion is particularly important.

The report identifies four aspects of Judaism as primary components of Jewishness: in the order in which they were ranked in surveys, they are culture, nationality/peoplehood, religion, and genealogy. The authors note that putting less emphasis on genealogy “fits nicely with … understanding that intermarriage is an irreversible part of Jewish life and with the cautious optimism some have concerning ‘the community’s ability to turn this challenging trend into an opportunity.’” But they also note that as Jews emphasize nationality/peoplehood, comfort with intermarriage could seem to rest on shaky ground, because intermarrieds currently show less connection to other Jews and Israel. One of the report’s recommendations is to “create initiatives that consciously seek to enhance the understanding of the Jewish peoplehood component among all who participate in Jewish life (Jews and non-Jews who affiliate with the community).” I would only note that efforts to influence non-Jews who affiliate with the community, and their partners, will be hindered to the extent that maintaining a norm of in-marriage makes interfaith couples feel second rate.

 

What We Learned at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit

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November 6, 2016
with Jodi Bromberg
published on eJewishPhilanthropy

In October 2016, an at-capacity crowd of 300-plus major foundation, federation and organization leaders gathered in Philadelphia at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit: Embracing the New Jewish Reality, the first-ever national convening on the topic of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. The Summit happened now because of steadily growing interest in the issue, spurred by the award of the Genesis Prize to Michael Douglas in 2015 and the resulting matching challenge grant process run by the Jewish Funders Network, and because of InterfaithFamily’s emergence as the leading convener in the space, with a successful smaller gathering in Boston last year.

The Summit marked a watershed moment, putting engaging interfaith families at a high level in the mainstream Jewish community’s agenda, with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Funders Network partnering with IFF on the Summit. Every significant programmatic effort to engage interfaith families was represented. Three areas of learnings emerged: 1) the issues that need to be addressed to engage interfaith families; 2) the new efforts to engage them; and 3) the “narrative shift” in attitudes that must happen to make engagement efforts successful.

New Understandings about What Influences Engagement

There was considerable consensus about the applicability to interfaith families of a new conceptualization of what it means to be or to “do” Jewish. People will engage in Jewish life and community if Jewish values, rituals and practices, and forms of community help them meet common human needs for meaning and purpose, connect with others, and connect with something greater than themselves. In turn, interfaith couples will engage to the extent they are aware of this Jewish “stuff” and it is delivered in ways that are accessible to them.

There were stories of interfaith couples valuing Judaism’s gratitude practice, home family practice, focus on others, focus on improving the world, spiritual life, and ongoing questioning. How people will apply Jewish values and wisdom, and which traditions and forms of community they will adopt, however, is in flux, and traditional measures will not capture how people are defining and expressing their Jewishness today. At a session on entry points and pathways for interfaith families, speakers said we need to “bring the magic of Judaism as an enriching force in everyday lives to parents, grandparents, and children;” that “Jewish values help parents do the core job of parenting;” and that there is nothing that disengaged “free roamers” can talk about that they care about that isn’t addressed by Jewish values and traditions.

That much of Jewish religious life is organized around the concept of “the Jewish people,” and much of Jewish cultural life is by definition particularistic, raises the question how a partner from a different faith background can feel included in Jewish life. That in turn raises issues for the Jewish partners, who privilege their relationships over religion and other priorities, as found in the Continuum research sponsored by the Jacobson Family Foundation and a new study of mixed religion families by the Pew Research Center released in conjunction with the Summit. The Summit featured a text study session on different conceptions of Jewishness (nationality; ancestry; loyalty to a set of beliefs and doctrines; affiliation with a community; and identifying with a culture). An intermarried unconverted partner from a different faith tradition could feel included as a member of the Jewish people, and as a member of some Jewish communities but not others, while not a Jew. The idea of treating Jewish peoplehood as a family was also advanced. How peoplehood is understood and explained is a fertile area for further exploration.

The Summit featured a session on difficult boundary issues. The phenomenon of interfaith couples saying they are raising their children in more than one religion – partly Jewish and partly something else – is real. InterfaithFamily felt that the issue was important and warranted discussion, and invited a prominent proponent of “doing both,” to present at the Summit.  She argued that 1) families doing both are already part of synagogues and Jewish communities, and 2) that these couples want to engage in Judaism while educating their children about both religious traditions in the family, and don’t want to merge them together. Another speaker talked of an “open Judaism” that moved beyond tolerance to celebrating different religious traditions. Whether Jewish institutions will be willing to engage openly with these families without alienating them is another area for further consideration.

New Efforts to Engage Interfaith Families

One program session addressed ways to reach interfaith families through advertising, community organizing approaches and Israel trips. Recommendations included edgy, humorous advertising; explicit and prominent statements that interfaith families are welcome; and meeting people where they are, building relationships one-on-one and connecting them with others with similar interests, and providing content from the vast storehouse of Judaism that addresses their interests, and helps them do Jewish things.

One important suggestion was to empathize – to anticipate the hesitations that interfaith couples will have (Will we be welcomed or judged? Will there be people like us? Will we know enough?) and then tell stories of other interfaith families’ experiences that address those hesitations. Another was to focus on touchstone, nodal moments in peoples’ lives.

Several speakers emphasized the key role of grandparents, which one referred to as “the boots on the ground” with “high touch” relationships wanting to create “safe spaces.” Others emphasized the importance of reaching people through their friends: the disengaged “free roamers” have friends who are engaged and friends who are seekers, and all of them are social and on social media. People go to things when someone they know says “do you want to go to this, I’m going.”

If there was one consistent theme, it was the importance of relationships and relational processes in engaging interfaith families. The underlying theory is that identity formation is lifelong and dependent on experiences; people are susceptible to change because of college experiences or their experiences as couples. Jewish identity is relationally constructed and manifested in the “social self.” The stories of several of the interfaith couples who spoke at the Summit included examples of negotiation and compromise that resulted in Jewish engagement. Almost all of the speakers in a program session on entry points and pathways for interfaith couples, representing early childhood programs, couples’ groups, and Jewish learning programs, emphasized the importance of developing relationships; one said, “when relationships of trust and security are evident, families can thrive.”

Wendy Rosov presented her program evaluations of InterfaithFamily’s Your Community initiative, which places a rabbi and a program manager in local communities to offer a range of services and programs targeted at interfaith couples, and of Honeymoon Israel, which provides immersive trips to Israel for locally-based cohorts of couples (69% to date have been interfaith couples). Rosov focused on two shared strategies: high touch relationship building, both between couples and staff and among couples, and providing a safe, non-judgmental space that facilitates discussion, negotiation and compromise between partners. Programmatic efforts that depend on relationship building and relational processes take time and are expensive (to the extent they depend on staff), and to the extent that reaching greater numbers requires more staff, the cost increases.

The kinds of outcomes these programs achieve tie in to the new conceptualizations of what it means to be or “do” Jewish. Shifting couple dynamics is particularly important, towards more equality around making Jewish choices, and towards more facility in discussing religious differences, doing Jewish things, and integrating traditions in ways that work for both partners. Outcomes being achieved include feeling connected to other Jewishly-engaged couples and to Jewish communities, incorporating Jewish traditions in their lives on a regular basis, and increased comfort in Jewish settings.

Changing the Narrative

At the concluding plenary a participant made a plea for a “shift in the dominant narrative.” Several Summit speakers referred to the remaining ambivalence over intermarriage and the full legitimacy of the intermarried. A Hillel representative reported that students find it ostracizing when their parents’ marriages are considered invalid, and Hillel professionals are “in the closet” about being in interfaith relationships or from interfaith families.

A concrete result of negative attitudes about intermarriage is the “door slamming” that interfaith couples can experience when seeking a rabbi to officiate at their life cycle events. A number of Conservative rabbis spoke about the pain they feel when they tell couples that they cannot officiate at their weddings; one said that “we massage the message but at the end of the day we are saying ‘no’ and it is real and painful.” A new study first discussed at the Summit, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, may lead more rabbis to officiate. The audience audibly gasped when one of the report’s authors, Len Saxe, projected a slide showing that the percentage of in-married and intermarried couples who are raising their children as Jews by religion is very close when a rabbi is the sole officiant at the couples’ weddings – 96% for in-married couples compared to 85% for intermarried couples.

The stories of many speakers, on the other hand, reflected the cultural shift in attitudes that is needed in both institutions and individuals, and happening with some of them. Common threads in the experiences of the interfaith couples who spoke at the Summit included being invited in, seeing others like themselves, hearing explicit welcoming statements, and experiencing an overall diverse and welcoming milieu. A rabbi at one of their synagogues spoke of the blessings of intermarriage – bringing more thoughtful, questioning people “into the fold.”

Another speaker, a Protestant woman married to a Jewish man, raising their children Jewish, told about how she was deeply moved when she held the Torah for the first time at Simchat Torah immediately before the Summit. She reached that point, she said, because a rabbi said yes when asked to officiate at her wedding, and because at her emerging spiritual community she experienced “radical hospitality, not just tolerance,” there was no hint of “do more Jewish, be more Jewish, convert,” and it was a safe place to explore while feeling truly part of a community.

Many speakers emphasized the work on welcoming that remains to be done. More than one said that organizations that think they are welcome, really aren’t, and pointed out the need to train religious school teachers in particular. One said that if a couple has one bad experience, they may not come back. Another said that “we all need to be educated that we are all ambassadors.”

What’s Next?

The concluding plenary addressed what local communities need to do to engage interfaith families. There was consensus that both programs aimed explicitly at interfaith couples and families, and general programs that welcome everyone, including interfaith families, are needed. Wendy Rosov noted that one common strategy of InterfaithFamily/Your Community and Honeymoon Israel is a national organization with local community efforts.

The new data on the impact of rabbinic officiation supports the importance of relationship building in interfaith family engagement work. Len Saxe said that while they couldn’t prove that having a rabbi as a sole officiant caused the couples to raise their children as Jews by religion, there is some independent effect of rabbinic officiation, and he suggested that it could be the process by which the couple and the rabbi work together in preparation for the wedding.

With respect to changing the narrative, one participant pointed to a coming generational shift in attitudes. A worthy next step to the Summit might be to consider what can be done to speed up that shift.

InterfaithFamily introduced the Summit with the hope that the outcome would be a national coordinated effort to engage interfaith families. The question that now needs to be addressed is how to make that hope a reality.

Intermarriage in Britain: Tragedy or Opportunity?

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published in eJewishPhilanthropy

As a leader in efforts in the United States to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community, and having considered trying to export those efforts to Britain, I read with great interest the recent report by David Graham of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), “Jews in couples: Marriage, intermarriage, cohabitation and divorce in Britain.”

Regrettably, I found the tone and messaging of the report unfortunate. Viewing intermarriage as a tragedy to be feared, as something that might “engulf” the community, is not a smart communal approach. The trends identified in the report, of growth in segments of the community (Secular/Cultural, Reform/Progressive, young cohabitating adults) that are relatively heavily interfaith, suggest that the British Jewish community would be wise to increase efforts to engage their growing number of interfaith families, adding to efforts already underway.

Graham labels intermarriage “demographically corrosive,” largely based on the statistic that only 31 percent of the children of intermarried Jews are raised as Jews. As best I can tell, this statistic is based on the 2011 census, in which parents listed the religion of their children. Graham seems to acknowledge this ambiguity when he refers to “the children of Jews who are not being raised, or at least identified, as Jewish.” But relying on that statistic presents an incomplete picture of how intermarried parents expose their children to Jewishness. In American surveys, significant percentages of intermarried parents usually say they are raising their children “Jewish and something else,” or that they haven’t yet decided. It is reasonable to assume that this is true in Britain as well.

Graham admittedly takes “the perspective of ethnic preservation,” quoting Marshall Sklare as saying (in 1970) that “intermarriage strikes at the very core of Jewish group existence.” He also quotes Milton Gordon, who said (in 1964) that intermarriage leads to “the disappearance of the ethnic group as a separate entity and the evaporation of its distinctive values.” The problem here is that Jewishness is not just an ethnicity and our experience in the States shows that the boundaries of who is included in the Jewish community can be expanded without the loss of distinctive Jewish values.

Indeed, in America today, there is a ferment of activity based on ethics, culture, and spreading Judaism as a wisdom system or technology that helps people to lead better lives and to make the world better. The traditional measures of attitudes and practices used in the report are being increasingly challenged as not depicting the way people identify and act on their Jewishness or find it meaningful. The report acknowledges that the gap between intermarried and in-married Jews is smaller on ethical and cultural variables, and wider as to ‘socially exclusivist’ and religiously observant variables; the same is true in the States, where more and more non-traditional young Jews are not socially exclusivist or religiously observant in traditional ways.

Graham does not exhibit an objective or neutral attitude towards intermarriage. He assumes, for example, that “it might be expected that someone who shares their life with a non-Jew will exhibit weaker levels of Jewish attachment in general.” Even American social scientists that openly advocate to discourage or prevent intermarriage at this point agree that intermarriage is a natural result of acceptance and mixing in an open society, not a choice to leave Jewishness behind.

Besides, we don’t know what the Jewish identification and behavior of intermarried couples and families would be if they were genuinely welcomed to Jewish life and Jewish communities. Describing intermarriage as “corrosive” sends a clear message of disapproval to them. As Liberal Rabbi Aaron Goldstein has written, when the children of an intermarried couple “are not recognized as Jewish, or even, if they are, their parents’ relationship is described in terms of ‘marrying out,’ the message of rejection, intentional or not, could not be clearer.” People don’t want to engage with communities that brand their relationships as second-class or sub-optimal. But as Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romaine has written, we have a much better chance of keeping couples “within the Jewish orbit” by not “slamming the door in their face.”

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In January 2015, while I was CEO of InterfaithFamily, I had a series of meetings in London to explore the feasibility of bringing the InterfaithFamily/Your Community model to Britain. I met with several rabbis from the Reform movement, a rabbi from the Liberal movement, representatives of JHub, and with Rabbi Guy Hall, a pioneering rabbi who officiates and co-officiates at weddings of interfaith couples in Britain.

The InterfaithFamily/Your Community model places a full-time rabbi and a full-time project manager in a community. Your Community staff build personal ‘trusted advisor’ relationships with interfaith families, through officiation referral and other consultations, and provide Jewish learning and community building experiences, in particular workshops and ‘meet-ups’ where interfaith couples can talk with others like themselves about making decisions about religious traditions for their families. In addition, they raise awareness and connect interfaith families with local resources, and advocate for increased welcoming by providing trainings and participating in meetings of other community organizations.

While some local synagogue rabbis have at the outset viewed the Your Community rabbi as a ‘competitor,’ over time most realize that the Your Community rabbi is reaching many couples who are not yet ready to become synagogue members, and is in fact frequently refers couples to synagogues. Independent evaluations show that the short-term desired outcomes of the Your Community model are being achieved, with survey respondents stating they feel more connected to other Jewishly-engaged couples, families, and organizations and comfortable incorporating Jewish practices into their family life.

While there clearly are relevant differences between Britain and the United States, I believe that the kinds of services and programs provided by the Your Community model, and the kinds of outcomes being achieved, are needed and with appropriate modifications would be beneficial in supporting existing efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly. In connection with my trip I spoke and met with fundraising consultants, but at the time was not able to identify any readily available and interested funders. (Because services and programs for interfaith families are largely staff-driven, they are expensive; the approximate cost of the Your Community model is over $250,000 (£190,000) per annum.)

Aside from importing the InterfaithFamily Your Community or other American models, I believe that British Jewish leaders could learn from the experiences of those involved in engaging interfaith families, for example, at gatherings like next year’s Interfaith Opportunity Summit. Instead of the report’s conclusion that Jewish community leaders should focus on divorce rates, cohabitation, and age of first marriage as demographically impactful, the report’s statistics and trends, indicative of a generational shift in identity and practice, demand increased efforts to engage interfaith couples and families.