Does “Interfaith” Still Matter?


with Jodi Bromberg
published on the Jewish Education and Engagement blog of the Jewish Federations of North America; reprinted with permission

We are swimming in an ocean of intermarriage. So, why does “interfaith” still matter?


Interfaith is a big term that to us doesn’t connote anything about religious practice. It doesn’t mean a couple practicing two faiths, or joining two faiths together, or raising children “both,” or practicing one faith and no faith, one and the other. “Interfaith” in the context of a couple simply means that one partner comes from one faith tradition or background and one comes from another. In the broadest sense, it simply means a family that includes one or more people who have a Jewish background and one or more from different faith backgrounds.

But there is, of course, more specificity, a spectrum of interfaith couples.

On one end there are couples with a Jewish partner and a partner from a different faith background who “might as well be Jewish” – i.e. not converted but Jewishly-engaged, not practicing another faith other than perhaps participating in a non-religious Christmas or Easter celebration. Some of those couples say they consider themselves a “Jewish family” or a “Jewish family with a partner who’s not” and not an “interfaith family.” But the fact that they still have extended relatives and families from different faith backgrounds creates issues that for many beg to be addressed.

On the other end of the spectrum there are couples who are practicing two faiths and raising children as “both”; these couples raise different issues about how Jewish communities will welcome and include them.

And, there are couples where neither of the partners are Jewish in the most traditional sense, where their own backgrounds include Judaism as well as other faiths and traditions.

Interfaith is a big term but it works, here, as an umbrella term. No term is better to describe couples and families with members that come from Jewish backgrounds and other faith traditions. We use it as what in the legal field would be called a “term of art,” meaning a word that has an acquired meaning that may not be clear from the term itself.

Most people understand the term “interfaith” with this richness and complexity. Our 2015 User Survey asked respondents what descriptive term they preferred. Of intermarried respondents, 64% preferred “interfaith couple/family” while only 21% preferred “Jewish”; there was almost no difference among younger respondents. This is how some of the 871 respondents explained their answers:

“Interfaith to me describes that there is the presence of someone with a background other than Judaism in the family. Even though my family identifies as Jewish, and my husband is a non-practicing Christian, we are still an interfaith family.”

“I prefer the term ‘interfaith couple or family’ because it does not prioritize one family over the other. No matter what preference my partner and I choose for our home (we plan to raise our children in a Jewish home), I still think equal respect for both cultures and families is important, and I think that term is the best suited for that.”

“I feel this [interfaith couple or family] is an appropriate label to describe many families. For me, that’s what we are. I’m Jewish but not really religious, my husband was raised Catholic and is not at all religious. We’re raising our son Jewish, but not involving much religion so it’s more of the traditions and culture. For us, that label fits.”

“I and my children are Jewish, my partner is not. Using interfaith acknowledges her experience and identity.”

“My family practices Judaism inside our home but my husband’s extended family is Christian. I’m not sure if interfaith fits right but it’s closer than anything else I’ve heard.”

These snapshots also demonstrate the variance in “interfaith” – it’s the right term, but it needs lots of nuance.

The Unique Needs of Interfaith Families

Like many people in relationships, many interfaith partners are exquisitely sensitive and protective of each other; they don’t want to put each other in a position where they will feel awkward, ignorant, embarrassed or uncomfortable. If we want interfaith families to engage in Jewish life, we need to be sensitive to how Jewish life is presented and whether adjustments or modifications need to be made.

So what does that mean?

It means that Jewish wisdom and ideas need to be presented in ways that emphasize content and lower boundaries. The Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, for example, talks about “Jewish sensibilities,” emphasizing how Jewish wisdom and traditions can be applied to make people’s lives better, using Jewish language to talk about life, not just Jewish life.  The conversation applies not only to Jews but also to their partners from different faith backgrounds. It’s true that many of the Jews whom we hope will apply Jewish wisdom may not know much about their Jewish heritage, but the situation is qualitatively different for the partners from different backgrounds on whom Jewish wisdom has no inherent claim. How will the material be presented so it is accessible to them?

It means that we need to think through what Jewish language and concepts – peoplehood and connection to Israel, for example – mean for partners from different faith backgrounds and for those who are Jewish and something else. This is particularly relevant when we know that many young people want to express their spirituality but are not comfortable with existing religious worship as a vehicle to do so. How do we connect both Jews and their partners from different backgrounds to spirituality in Jewish settings? What new liturgies, formats and rituals do we need to weave into Jewish tradition? How do we become truly welcoming in spirit and practice?

It means that we need to listen more to those in interfaith partnerships and help them engage with each other. In our experience many interfaith couples want to discuss with others like themselves the particularly interfaith issue of how to talk about and make decisions about having religious traditions in their lives together. Some of the most impactful programs InterfaithFamily offers in local communities are workshops and meet-up groups for that purpose. We routinely get comments like this one from a Chicago participant, “I finally feel such a sense of community now getting to know other couples in the same family situation as ours.”

It means making highly transparent the opportunity to find Jewish clergy to officiate or co-officiate at their weddings and other life-cycle events – another particularly interfaith issue, since some rabbis are not permitted to officiate, and others who are permitted choose not to do so. We routinely get comments like these from officiation referral requesters: “I am very thankful for your assistance in making our wedding possible, as the rabbis whom I know would not officiate and I was feeling discouraged…” and “I think you provide an invaluable service that includes rather than excludes and I really want to express my thanks for that!”

It means we still have to be careful with our language. In InterfaithFamily surveys, the top-rated factor that attracted interfaith families to join Jewish organizations, at 79%, was explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome. It’s hard to accept but we continue to hear about off-putting comments that people in interfaith relationships hear in Jewish settings. We see a lot of room for professionals and organizations to be more aware of the messages conveyed by their language, communications and policies. Even the term “non-Jew” is off-putting to people from different faith backgrounds. Can we express a preference for in-marriage without making interfaith couples feel their relationship is less than ideal, second-best, “sub-optimal?” How can we talk about conversion in ways that make that wonderful personal choice accessible without indicating that partners from different faith traditions are embraced just as they are? Are we willing to include in Jewish community programs and organizations interfaith families who say they are “doing both”?

All of these are very interfaith family specific needs and issues that continue to merit attention. When we don’t pay attention, we shut doors.

So have we arrived at the point where “interfaith” doesn’t matter? Not yet.

The Future of Judaism: The Children of Intermarriage


Published in PJ Library’s PROOF Magazine and reprinted with permission.

Since the Pew Report more than two years ago, it has been clear that the non-Orthodox Jewish community is increasingly an intermarried community. Seventy-two percent of non-Orthodox Jews who married since 2000 married someone from a different faith background. Half of young Jewish adults have one Jewish parent.

Anyone who wants to see Jewish traditions thrive into the future must recognize that it will not happen unless we seize the opportunity to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and communities.

Positive news on this front emerged in October 2015 with an important new study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, Millennial Children of Intermarriage, funded by the Alan B. Slifka Foundation. The main focus of the study is to show the positive impact of participation in Jewish activities during college (Birthright, Hillel, etc.) on millennial children of intermarriage.

But the study has important implications for Jewish experiences in childhood too. It reports that, for the most part,  the fact that their parents are intermarried does not have direct impact on the current behaviors and attitudes of young adults, but Jewish experiences in childhood do. If their parents expose them to Jewish experiences in childhood, then they are much more comparable to the children of inmarriage.

The study includes the important policy implication that “reaching more intermarried families with formal and informal educational opportunities for their children should be a priority. Such experiences launch children on a pathway to Jewish involvement in college and beyond.”

I believe that the goal of having children of intermarried families exposed to Jewish education is best served by a process that involves “trusted advisors.” These advisors would:

  • Build relationships with interfaith couples.
  • Offer assistance for interfaith couples (if needed) to find Jewish clergy officiants for their life cycle events.
  • Make opportunities for new couples and new parents to talk with each other and skilled professionals about how to make decisions about religious traditions.
  • Provide engaging resources and low-barrier educational programs for parents on raising young children with Judaism in interfaith families.

Furthermore, trusted advisors who are rabbis are in a unique position to overcome any negative experiences interfaith couples may have had, and make recommendations that couples connect with synagogues and other Jewish groups. If this process works, by the time children of interfaith families are ready for formal and informal education, their parents will be much more likely to choose Jewish education for them.

For many years we have surveyed people in interfaith relationships about what attracts them to Jewish life and communities. In order of importance, thousands have replied that they are attracted by explicit statements that interfaith families are welcome, inclusive policies on participation by interfaith families, invitations to learn about Judaism as compared to invitations to convert, the presence of other interfaith families, the offering of programming and groups specifically for interfaith couples, and officiation by rabbis at weddings of interfaith couples. Our surveys, and surveys by other Jewish organizations of which we are aware, show that interfaith couples still report experiences of negative attitudes and disinviting behaviors as barriers to their expanded connection to Jewish life. These findings provide a roadmap for what Jewish communities can do to increase engagement by local interfaith families.

For reasons not clear to us, the Millennial Children of Intermarriage study questions whether it is possible to dramatically alter the status quo regarding the childhood religious socialization of children of intermarriage. I believe that it is.

Vitality or Decline?


Today’s Statement on Jewish Vitality, advocating strategic responses to respond to the challenges of the Jewish future, is extremely disheartening for what it says and what it doesn’t say about interfaith families.

Twenty-five years after continuity efforts began, it is still the case that most of our Jewish thought leaders, exemplified by those who signed on to the Statement, still think that intermarriage is bad, still think that conversion is the “answer” to the intermarriage “problem,” and still oppose programmatic efforts to engage interfaith families.

The Statement says that many children of non-Orthodox Jews will not identify as Jewish when they grow up “owing to intermarriage,” even though the Pew Report found increasing numbers of children of intermarried parents identifying as Jews and even though “owing to” sounds a lot like saying that intermarriage causes children to not be raised as Jews but all of the surveys show correlation at best and not causation.

The Statement touts Jewish education programs, PJ Library, camps, trips to Israel, youth groups, etc. because they raise the in-marriage rate, instead of because they are critically important for and successful at strengthening Jewish engagement.

Yes, the Statement acknowledges that large numbers of Jews will intermarry, but immediately says “we must bear in mind that intermarriages can be transformed to in-marriages by the act of conversion” and advocates for more conversion-oriented courses.

If Jewish leaders wanted to drive away from Jewish engagement the 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who intermarried since 2000, and the majority of college-age Jews who have one Jewish parent, they couldn’t do so more effectively than by espousing the response to intermarriage expressed in the Statement. Interfaith couples do not want to participate in a community that describes their relationships as something to be prevented, let alone tells one partner that they’re welcome if they convert but not as they are.

This fundamental distaste for intermarriage is manifested by the complete absence of any support in the Statement for programs that are targeted expressly at recruiting, attracting and embracing interfaith families. Sure, it’s OK with these leaders if the children of intermarried parents participate in their immersive programs – but G-d forbid that the community do anything that explicitly states, and demonstrates with programmatic responses, that Jews want interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community.

All of the programmatic steps outlined in the Statement are important and should be supported. But if they are marketed as leading to in-marriage and conversion, and if they are not accompanied by programs for interfaith families, they will amount to just circling the wagons around a continuing diminishing group.

Fortunately, there are other Jewish thought leaders who recognize the importance of efforts to engage interfaith families. I’m thinking of the Genesis Prize Fund which boldly chose to honor Michael Douglas, and now in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network is offering a matching grant initiative “to encourage the creation of a culture of welcoming and acceptance within the Jewish community of intermarried couples, their families, and individuals who come from these families [and] to energize and strengthen organizations working in this field and to encourage the creation of new programs in that area.”

I’m thinking of federations and family foundations and community foundations in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington DC who provide support for InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects in each of those cities, where a full-time rabbi and a project manager build trusted advisor relationships with interfaith couples and families (including by helping them find officiants for life cycle events) and offer a range of Jewish learning and community building experiences for young couples seeking help deciding what to do about religious traditions in their lives and young interfaith families seeking help raising their children with Judaism.

It would have been so smart for the signatories of the Statement to eliminate their anti-intermarriage tone and to include programs for interfaith families among their list of efforts deserving support. I long for the day when the more enlightened view becomes predominant. Because if Jews and Jewish leaders can’t overcome fundamental deep-seated antipathy toward intermarriage, we’re going to see not vitality, but decline.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

The Ever-Renewing People


Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, and Jason Edelstein published a very important essay today in Mosaic. The title is The Ever-Renewing People and the sub-heading aptly summarizes the essay: “Jewish life in America is actually flourishing, thanks in part to the energy of children of intermarriage.” It’s a response to another hand-wringing condemnation of intermarriage from Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen published a few weeks ago.

In a nutshell, where Wertheimer and Cohen cite a decades-ago sociologist who when asked what the grandchildren of intermarried Jews should be called responded “Christian,” Edelsberg and Edelstein dismiss that notion as neither apt nor helpful. They note that thousands of young Jews – up to half of whom would be dismissed by Wertheimer and Cohen as “Christian” – attend Jewish summer camps, Jewish teen programs, Hillel and Moishe House. They put Wertheimer and Cohen’s pessimism in its place:

In the end, Wertheimer and Cohen’s depiction of [American Jewish] life as in need of being pulled back “from the brink” is another caricature of Jews as (in the phrase of the late Simon Rawidowicz) an “ever-dying people.” This belies our extraordinary history as a people and an ever-renewing faith tradition that, time and again, have demonstrated an ability to evolve and adapt, thereby avoiding the cliff that Wertheimer and Cohen have artificially constructed.

Every piece of research that has asked people in interfaith relationships why they are or are not engaged Jewishly cites numerous instances of interfaith couples feeling judged, or they or their children evaluated as “less Jewish.” Interfaith families still experience or perceive negative attitudes about their marriage choices from Jews and Jewish leaders – attitudes that are fueled by essays like Wertheimer and Cohen’s. That’s why the optimistic view of the future, on the part of one of the Jewish community’s most important philanthropists, is so important. That view supports increased efforts to engage even more interfaith families and children of interfaith families in Jewish life and community – to insure, in Edelsberg and Edelstein’s words, that diverse Jews “will continue to invigorate contemporary Judaism and invent new ways to experience American Jewish life.”

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Birthright Israel and Intermarriage


[This piece, by Edmund Case and Jodi Bromberg, was published in eJewishPhilathropy on September 11, 2014.]

Taglit-Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed and implemented to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews. A just-released study confirms many positive impacts of Birthright Israel on marriage and family choices.

At InterfaithFamily we greatly appreciate that participation in Birthright Israel is open to young adult Jews whose parents are intermarried; the new study says that 17% of participants from 2001 to 2006 have one Jewish parent and that recent trip cohorts include a larger proportion of those individuals. We have published several articles by trip participants about their very positive trip experiences and hope they have had some effect in alleviating any concerns children of intermarried parents might have about whether they will be truly welcomed. Our staff have participated in training Birthright Israel tour operators to be sensitive to participants whose parents are intermarried and have advised Birthright Israel staff on sensitive questions to determine trip eligibility. We seek to promote Birthright Israel Next activities where we have local staff in our InterfaithFamily/Your Communities – currently Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston, and coming in the fall of 2014 in Los Angeles and Atlanta.

We support Birthright Israel because it strengthens Jewish engagement among young Jews and in particular young Jews whose parents are intermarried. A 2009 evaluation study found that 52% of trip participants who were intermarried viewed raising children as Jews as very important, almost twice as many as 27% of non-participants. The new study again reports higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants having that view. The new study reports that the group of intermarried trip participants who have children at this time is too small to assess the impact of Birthright Israel on actual child raising; the authors do say it is possible that an impact will surface in the future, and that is what we fully expect to see. Higher percentages of intermarried trip participants than non-participants also have a special meal on Shabbat, attend religious services, and are otherwise engaged Jewishly.

The new study focuses on marriage choices and highlights that trip participants are more likely (72%) to marry other Jews than non-participants (55%). It finds that the impact of participation on marriage choices of participants whose parents are intermarried is “particularly striking;” for them, the likelihood of in-marriage is 55%, compared to 22% of non-participants whose parents are intermarried.

At InterfaithFamily we think it is wonderful when a young adult Jew falls in love and partners with or marries another Jew. That more participants on Birthright Israel trips marry Jews, and more participants whose parents are intermarried marry Jews, are very positive results. We also think Jewish communities need to genuinely welcome all newly-formed families, whether both partners are Jewish or not. Offering a sincere “mazel tov” is the first of many needed steps that can contribute to interfaith couples deciding to engage in Jewish life and community.

We don’t doubt the study’s conclusion that Birthright Israel has “the potential to alter broad demographic patterns of the American Jewish community” and change trends of in-marriage, intermarriage and raising Jewish children. We also don’t doubt that significant numbers and percentages of young adult Jews – whether they have the great good fortune to participate on a Birthright Israel trip or not – will continue to intermarry. In the new study, of all trip participants who are married, 28% are intermarried. Of participants who are married whose parents are intermarried, 45% are intermarried. The study’s authors note that some evidence suggests that the magnitude of the marriage choice effects may moderate over time – the likelihood of in-marriage decreases for participants as their age at marriage increases, and participants tend to marry later.

Further, large numbers of young adult Jews have not participated and sadly will not participate on a Birthright Israel trip. A large number of young adult Jews have already aged out of eligibility. It would be truly wonderful if resources could be raised and more young Jews attracted to participate on Birthright Israel trips, so that the annual number of participants would represent more than the current one-third of the eligible age cohort. Even if half or two thirds of those eligible could participate, a significant percentage still would not. At the study’s current rates, close to half of non-participants will intermarry.

The study’s authors note that discussion of the Pew Report “has, for the most part, ignored the contribution of improved and expanded Jewish education programs … to both the current contours of American Jewry and to its future trajectory.” The authors are referring in particular to Israel education programs, but they clearly believe that Jewish education programs work. At InterfaithFamily we believe it is imperative to offer Jewish education programs designed for and marketed explicitly to interfaith families – whether they participated in a Birthright Israel trip or not – like those offered as part of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative. The study includes numerous quotes from its survey respondents about their memorable Jewish experiences including Shabbat and holidays; our Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family class elicits multiple examples of the same kinds of comments. The study also notes that intermarried survey participants who had a sole Jewish officiant at their wedding were far more likely to be raising their children Jewish than those who had another type of officiation at their weddings; that’s why our personalized officiation referral service is so important.

Again, Birthright Israel may well be the most effective program ever designed to strengthen Jewish engagement among young Jews, and we wish it great continued success, especially in attracting and strengthening Jewish engagement among young Jews with intermarried parents. Services and programs designed explicitly for interfaith families are badly needed too, and can work together with and in mutual support of Israel engagement programs, all with a goal of greater engagement in Jewish life and community.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Promote Jewish Engagement, Not In-Marriage


with Jodi Bromberg
Reprinted with permission from eJewishPhilanthropy.

As Gary Rosenblatt has revealed (“Continuity: Why Should We Care,” January 22nd), a group of two dozen “concerned Jews” have met, exchanged papers, and propose to take some as yet undefined action to counter a “disturbing trend” of increased intermarriage. The group seeks a strategy to re-direct the approach of communal leaders and change-makers, like philanthropists, so as to promote in-marriage. We write to urge this group to re-frame their effort, not as one to discourage intermarriage, but rather as one to promote Jewish engagement.

Intermarriage is the reality of our time, as the Pew Report confirms, whether or not Jewish leaders “acquiesce” to that trend, as the group complains. Seventy-one percent of non-Orthodox Jews who married after 2000 married someone not Jewish. Most Jews today are marrying someone who is not Jewish. This is not a shifting tide of the ocean; this is the ocean.

We ask the group to consider: how will that vast population respond to an organized communal effort to promote in-marriage? Promoting in-marriage as ideal or preferable will necessarily have the effect of turning off those who will intermarry – as most will – to Jewish engagement. People don’t go where their choices are demeaned.

The New York Times recently featured a photo exhibit by an Israeli, Yael Ben-Zion, of twenty intermarried couples, including five with a Jewish partner. Ben-Zion is quoted as saying that “the really important questions” interfaith couples face include, “Are you accepted by your family and community?” A campaign to promote in-marriage will only contribute to interfaith couples and families feeling not accepted by the Jewish community.

We understand that the group is motivated by studies showing that by traditional measures, interfaith families are relatively disengaged from Jewish life and community. But we have no doubt that that picture of engagement would be markedly different today if the “audacious hospitality” recently endorsed by URJ President Rick Jacobs had been the Jewish community’s response to the continuity crisis that arose in the early 1990s.

Nearly twenty-five years later, however, the prevailing attitude towards intermarriage among too many Jewish leaders – and too many Jews – is still terribly negative. While Mr. Rosenblatt professes not to consider intermarriage a “disease,” that is the message that the group’s approach to intermarriage conveys. That message contributes directly to feelings of lack of acceptance, and the interfaith couples in Ben-Zion’s photo exhibit are the least of it. The relatively few attempts to ask interfaith families about their experiences with Jewish communities – focus groups assembled by philanthropists, surveys conducted by a federations, qualitative studies by academics, as well as numerous surveys conducted by InterfaithFamily – have consistently revealed negative off-putting experiences.

Conversely, audacious hospitality matters, and has a direct impact on families’ willingness and desire to make Jewish choices. As one Catholic mother wrote in her response to InterfaithFamily’s recent user survey, “The temple that we belong to is very open to interfaith marriages and that is why I am choosing to bring my son up Jewish.”

We recently spoke with a rabbi who leads one of the thriving urban groups that is attracting young Jews to worship services, text study and other Jewish experiences. Many of the participants are interfaith couples and the rabbi told us that she imposes no restrictions whatsoever on participation. She doesn’t ask whether a person is Jewish or not Jewish or some place in between; whatever anyone wants to do Jewishly, she allows. That is the kind of radical invitation and acceptance that is needed to maximize Jewish engagement. Another similar group describes their approach as “radical accessibility” – the idea that everyone is welcome to find meaning and community there.

Mr. Rosenblatt describes the programs that his group is apparently considering as those “that would bring young Jews into contact with each other socially, … subsidized child care, day schools, summer camps, and intensive Israel travel [to] provide the experiential and textual elements needed to create literate, caring Jews.” All of these programs, many of which are already funded, are desirable – regardless of their impact on intermarriage – because they strengthen Jewish identity and lead to increased engagement in Jewish life and community – something that we all want.

But if we want Jews in or from interfaith families to be so engaged, we can’t promote our programs by touting them as the cure or antidote to intermarriage. That is self-defeating, destructive and unnecessary. As importantly, there is an opportunity cost to spending time and resources thinking about ways to encourage endogamy rather than engagement. Interfaith families make up a substantial and increasing portion of our population. Why not focus on spending those resources on understanding and engaging that already existing population?

We were heartened by one voice in the group who is quoted as writing that “the communal response to increasing intermarriage should be encouraging intermarried families to raise their children as Jewish…” We urge the group to take that approach. Rather than promoting in-marriage, promote Jewish engagement – and in particular, join us in promoting Jewish engagement by interfaith families.


Debate Reignited


A group of “concerned Jews” in response to the Pew survey propose to take concerted action to encourage Jewish leaders to encourage in-marriage. Julie Wiener writes that “the intermarriage debate” has “reignited” in a JTA article that was picked up by the Forward. Jodi Bromberg, InterfaithFamily’s new President, and I wrote an op-ed for eJewishPhilanthropy, Promote Jewish Engagement, Not In-Marriage. Paul Golin from JOI also had an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week.

To us the key point is that all of the actions any proponent of in-marriage proposes – increased Jewish education, social networks, Israel trips – are worthwhile because they promote Jewish engagement, which is what everyone on all sides of this debate wants. We say encourage those actions for that reason – because they promote the Jewish engagement we all want, regardless of who people marry. Encouraging those actions because they promote in-marriage is self-defeating – it will alienate the majority of the audience who will intermarry regardless of what Jewish leaders recommend.

Ironically, perhaps coincidentally, yesterday was the day of the very moving memorial service for Edgar Bronfman. One very subtle comment stood out to me: Hilllary Clinton expressed gratitude to Edgar and Jan Bronfman for the friendship and support they provided to Chelsea Clinton when she married a Jewish man. Edgar Bronfman, who will be sorely missed, understood the importance of genuine acceptance and welcome much more than the group of Jewish leaders who want to encourage in-marriage.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Thank You and Good Luck to Jennifer Gorovitz


We were sorry to learn that Jennifer Gorovitz will be stepping down as CEO of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

Most of the commentary has focused appropriately on the small number of women who have lead federations – Jennifer was the first woman to head a large city Federation in North America – and expressed hope that many more will follow in her footsteps.

We’re feeling a loss more personal to InterfaithFamily in particular and the field of engaging interfaith families more generally. Jennifer was a leader among Federation leaders in championing the importance of Federations taking action to engage interfaith families. She was instrumental in making funding possible for InterfaithFamily/San Francisco Bay Area, and spoke about the project with us on a panel at the 2012 General Assembly (the Federation system’s annual conference).

We truly appreciate Jennifer saying in her own statement that she was “particularly proud of transformative grants to Keshet and InterfaithFamily” and describing them as among “the many inspiring ways that the Federation is building Jewish lives and deepening and broadening its reach.” And she is exactly right in saying that for Jewish Federations and organizations to maintain their relevance and thrive into the future, “we will all have to embrace… substantive and meaningful engagement of Jews of all ages and backgrounds…  including interfaith Jews…”

Fortunately IFF has a lot of strong support in the San Francisco Jewish community – and that community has a lot of strong leaders. We wish the Federation well in their search to replace Jennifer and hope they find someone who shares her passion for engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community. And we especially wish her well as she builds the next chapter in her life.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

He Will Be Missed: Remembering Edgar M. Bronfman, Sr.


All of us at InterfaithFamily are mourning the loss of Edgar Bronfman, who died last night.

edgarbronfmanEdgar had a powerful wonderful personal impact on our organization. He was a true pioneer and visionary for the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

As early as 2004, we reprinted an article from the Jerusalem Post whose title conveyed Edgar’s attitude and foreshadowed all of his future efforts in our field: Bronfman: Children of Intermarriage Are Also Jews.

Back in 2008 I wrote that InterfaithFamily, which started as an independent non-profit in 2002, had plateaued at a funding level of $375,000 until 2006, and that I had given serious thought to closing IFF because of lack of funding support for our cause. But a tide turned in 2006, and we raised over $500,000 that year, and over $800,000 in 2007. How did this happen? Because Edgar Bronfman was the key catalyst. The Samuel Bronfman Foundation was our first major new funder that year.

We enjoyed support from Edgar and SBF for many years after. I’ve only been to the Jewish Funders Network annual conference (which isn’t meant to be a place for grant-seekers to seek grants) once: because Edgar and SBF sponsored a reception at which we spoke about IFF. And I had two memorable lunches with Edgar at what I understood to be “his” table at the Four Seasons.

More important than his impact on InterfaithFamily, though, was his impact on the cause of engaging interfaith families. The importance of welcoming interfaith families was the centerpiece of his important 2008 book, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance. Edgar’s son, Adam, has also been outspoken in the past on the same issues, with coverage in a 2007 JTA article, and in a speech at the 2008 GA.

But the sentiments that Edgar Bronfman spoke so explicitly and repeatedly about welcoming interfaith families have sadly been rare among Jewish leaders. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anyone of Edgar’s stature who has been willing to forcefully assert the critical importance of engaging interfaith families to the liberal Jewish future. When the Pew Report generated huge discussion in the Jewish world starting this past October, the voices of the leadership of the Jewish community seemed to all be delivering the tired old “stem the tide of intermarriage” message.

No one comparable to Edgar Bronfman was heard delivering his prophetic message, in Hope, Not Fear:

 If we speak about intermarriage as a disaster for the Jewish people, we send a message to intermarried families that is mixed at best. How can you welcome people in while at the same time telling them that their loving relationship is in part responsible for the destruction of the Jewish people? No one should be made to feel our welcome is conditional or begrudging. The many non-Jews who marry Jews must not be regarded as a threat to Jewish survival but as honored guests in a house of joy, learning and pride.

The oft-cited figure that among intermarried families only 33 percent of children are raised Jewish does not take into account the possibility that if the Jewish community were more welcoming, those numbers could grow dramatically.

We can only hope that some Jewish leader somewhere will pick up the mantle Edgar has left behind and continue to champion the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

We send our condolences to Edgar’s family and to the staff of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the non-profit organizations that were closest to his heart.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

Opening the Gates


Leading up to and during my vacation there have been three big intermarriage stories in the media. They all revolve around whether, and how, Jewish communities are going to open their gates and draw in interfaith couples and families.

First came a JTA story by Uriel Heilman, The War Against Intermarriage Has Been Lost. Now What? The title pretty much tells the content of the article: Jewish institutions and in particular religious denominations are not “fighting against intermarriage” so much any more; the question now is how to react to the intermarriages that are going to happen; the overall strategy appears to be to engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism; the denominations differ in how far to go in that embrace, and how strongly to push for conversion. Heilman says there has been a shift in attitudes so that intermarriage is viewed as “a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.”

I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is – there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders – and I think it’s unfortunate to see gain only when there is conversion. But the real issue is, what are Jewish institutions and denominations going to do to engage with the intermarried. I would be more interested in seeing a JTA article on the efforts that are underway to do exactly that.

Second was a series of three essays on about patrilineal descent. A Conservative rabbi, Alana Suskin, in The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent, tells how badly she feels about not recognizing patrilineal Jews as Jewish in large part because it’s easy to convert. Then an Orthodox rabbi, Ben Greenberg, in Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach, also feels badly, and says that a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel… people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.” But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbis’ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a “balcony perspective” because of the impact the decision had on recognition of people as Jews by other denominations.

I would say, from what I would respectfully suggest is perhaps a more important “balcony perspective,” what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldn’t help but make this connection when reading the Forward’s profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader – and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahl’s essay originally in Sh’ma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to “reaffirm her Jewish legacy.”)

The Reform rabbi who wrote for MJL, Rachel Gurevitz, I think gets it right. In Patrilineal Descent: Why This Rabbi Feels No Angst she first acknowledges Rabbi Greenberg’s concern with complications for klal yisrael but says

[T]his is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.

Rabbi Gurevitz then focuses on what I would agree is most important:

[T]he individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.

The third major story was an excerpt of a “live discussion” on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilman’s perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I don’t have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that “invariably,” in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage “almost always” results in a diminishment of Judaism. That is the first reason he gives for not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. I would respectfully suggest that the chances of the children being raised as Jewish and the chances of the intermarriage not resulting in “diminishment” would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpe’s rationale.

Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesn’t officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isn’t Jewish isn’t subject to Jewish law. I can’t argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that it’s “bad faith” for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isn’t representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true “at least for me” but it comes across as a cheap shot at all of the serious committed rabbis who do officiate for interfaith couples.

The common thread of all of this press is, how open are our gates going to be – in our efforts to engage interfaith couples and families, in who we recognize as Jews, and in for whom we officiate. Those are the key questions. I’m for wide open gates.

Now back to vacation.

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.