February 2024 News from the Center

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October 7, Antisemitism, and Interfaith Families

Writing in eJP  about “Communal transformations in our time of crisis,” Rabbis Ben Spratt and Joshua Stanton aptly summarize the current moment: “The growing notion of a wisdom tradition with universal appeal is largely being eclipsed, at least for the moment, by the visceral call to peoplehood as a group under threat by an increasingly hostile society.”

We’ve expressed before the hope that “peoplehood” will be understood to include partners from different faith backgrounds, as well as their families. Our group under threat needs to be as broad as possible, with as many allies as possible.

The ADL and 18Doors announced a new partnership to support interfaith families in countering rising antisemitism. Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO, described “an increasing need for resources … for those in interfaith families…. Our partnership with 18Doors will bring inclusive tools and guidance to more people in interfaith relationships, addressing the challenge of antisemitism family by family.”

This article in the New York Times, “Navigating Israel’s War When One Spouse Is Jewish, and One Is Not,” based on interviews of numerous interfaith couples, feels honest and accurate. We appreciated the sub-title, “For some couples, figuring out how to talk about the war in Gaza is a hurdle in the relationship, but ultimately one that has brought them closer.”

The War Made My Husband, A Jew By Choice, Even More Jewish,” is an important albeit troubling personal story. The author writes about “gaps between my convert husband and my born-Jewish background.” She says his conversion is a joy to her and a boon to their relationships, but they “diverge in knowledge, in attachment, and in attitude.” She says to him,

“It’s in my blood and bones, and I know I come from this, that I am made by this history, forged by these words and these concepts and this people. I don’t think you can feel the same way. You’re not of it in the same way. It’s not of you. You can love it and hold it and participate in it, and you do, but it’s not the stuff of you. It didn’t make you in the same way.”

She refers to the prohibition on reminding converts of their former status, but then says there is a

“running undercurrent that if you’re not born Jewish, you can’t possibly become so, can’t possibly understand. You’re a wannabe, a hanger-on, an interloper. I had always bucked this sometimes-not-so-quiet attitude, and now here I was subjecting my own beloved husband to the same blood-based scrutiny. Suspicion and clannism run deep among the humans. Jews, in this instance, are no exception (however we may try to be, or think that we are).”

Then, after her husband responds to October 7 with “solidarity and support,” goes to services with her, wears an anti-antisemitism button, ties blue ribbon around their trees, and listens to Jewish podcasts, she is

“no longer worried about our different experiences growing up; I know that when disaster befalls our people, he will be right in the thick of it with me, fully identifying, fully supportive. The proof is in his actions and attitudes every day of this war; he is more completely a Jew than I ever dreamed of.”

It certainly rings true that people who grew up with Judaism will have differences in knowledge, attitudes and attachments about and towards it. But responding with suspicion and tribalism to converts, let alone partners from different faith backgrounds, who are actively “doing Jewish” – regarding them as interlopers – weakens the overall Jewish community. This story genuinely surfaces the deep-seated tribalism many Jews feel; we need to be aware of it, and to resist it.

Conservative Movement

Last month we commented on the Conservative movement’s new report on efforts to engage interfaith families, without lifting the ban on its rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, head of the movement, then wrote a heartfelt explanation, “Why the Conservative Movement Is Changing Our Approach to Interfaith Marriage.

Rabbi Blumenthal did not fully explain why the movement is maintaining the ban, but it appears to be the view that a rabbi-officiated interfaith wedding ceremony would not have “Jewish integrity” for either the rabbi or the couple. Telling that to an interfaith couple looking for a rabbi to officiate can only push them away from Jewish engagement.

(The only other mention we saw of the Conservative movement’s new efforts to engage was this JNS report.)

Orthodox Triumphalism

Judaism Is Not a State of Mind” is an awful piece. Last month’s newsletter highlighted Jennifer Cox’s “I Chose for My Family to Be Jewish. Even After October 7, I Would Choose It Again;” she is a mother who is not Jewish but who feels strongly that her children and her family are Jewish. Now comes an Orthodox rabbi, Rav Hayim Leiter, who tells Cox her children aren’t Jewish, because Judaism is “transmitted through the maternal line.” He says, “I don’t point this out to be cruel or insensitive,” but that’s exactly what it is, because it’s false as to much of the Jewish world outside Rav Leiter’s Orthodox lane, and counter-productive to anyone who wants to see the number of Jewishly-engaged people expand. For many people outside of his lane, and contrary to his title, Judaism is largely a state of mind – and there’s more than one way to be Jewish. It’s too bad he can’t respect that and see the benefit to the Jewish people overall for Jennifer Cox’s family to be and to be considered Jewish.

Hebrew College Admissions Policy

When Rabbi Art Green opposed the Hebrew College Rabbinic School’s change of policy that allowed admission to students in interfaith relationships as “giving in to assimilation,” the Times of Israel published my response, What’s More Important, Being Jewish or Doing Jewish. There’s been a lot of recent commentary about Rabbi Green’s sanctioning for sexual misconduct that we did not think was relevant for the Center to mention – until this blog post where Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein suggests that the sanctioning can’t be separated from Hebrew College’s change in policy. He refers to a tragedy that “a generation of rabbis [is] being trained by this particular form of ‘Judaism’” and expresses concern for “congregations who will encounter a gay, intermarried rabbi as the authentic representative of Judaism, with no sense of commandment, obligation, and submission to tradition.” To repeat: there is more than one way to be Jewish.

British Jews

The UK Institute of Jewish Policy Research issued a new report that shows the rate of interfaith marriage has increased from 17% in the 1990s, to 24% of those who married between 2000 and 2009, to 34% of those who married between 2010 and 2022. More women (21%) than men (14%) are intermarried; more secular/cultural (48%) and Reform (20%) are intermarried. On traditional measures (belonging to a synagogue, having half or more Jewish friends lighting Chanukah candles), the intermarried are more “weakly connected.” Curiously, the report does not include data on how children of interfaith families are being raised religiously.

We appreciated the lack of negative commentary about the increasing rate of interfaith marriage. The author of the report, Dr. Jonathan Boyd, doesn’t comment on it one way or the other. The initial coverage in the UK Jewish press is titled “Steep Rise in Jews Marrying Out as the Number of Zionists Drop Says New Survey,” but only reports the intermarriage data and doesn’t otherwise comment.

Moreover, there was a very strong statement by a Progressive Rabbi, Josh Levy, whose response to the one-in-three rate is “Leap of Faith: it is our sacred task to welcome mixed-faith families” where he says “Jewish identity doesn’t cease to be important to a Jew who falls in love with and marries a non-Jew. Rather, it is the quality of our welcome that matters most.”

Also worth noting:

  • Steven Windmueller’s “Ten Trends That Are Reshaping American Judaism” is another example of ignoring interfaith marriage. He mentions “non-binary Jews, Jews of color, and ‘unchurched’ individuals” as new constituencies, heightened awareness of diversity and inclusion, and generational differences regarding identity and affiliation, all contributing to “redefining American Judaism” – with nothing said about interfaith families.
  • Last month we mentioned the controversy around the Israel Education Ministry pulling funding from a program because Lucy Aharish, an Israeli Arab married to an Israeli Jew (Fauda star, Tsahi Halevi) participated as the program host. Now in a long interview with Bari Weiss, Aharish talks about raising their child as Muslim and Jewish, and discusses the backlash she and her husband received when they married.
  • This article in Catholic Review says that Catholics are supposed to marry only other Catholics, in Catholic ceremonies, but there are dispensations available. This article says “Hinduism has no rules against marrying outside the faith. But couples say it has its bumps.

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The Center is proud to have signed up to be a distribution partner with Everyone Counts, an initiative aimed at freeing the hostages.

November 2023 News from the Center

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November continued to be a very challenging month. I’ve stayed in touch with the Israeli mother I mentioned in last month’s newsletter, who wasn’t able to come with her son to my grandson’s bar mitzvah as they had planned. I felt compelled to and was glad to participate in the November 14 rally for Israel in Washington DC; she told me afterwards that Israelis appreciated that so many Americans showed up. I think that was the most impactful aspect of the rally.

The next day my friend and her three children were volunteering around the hostage families’ march to Jerusalem. Most recently she expressed the way I feel – “relieved to see some hostages return, but terrified about the fate of hundreds more,” and worried about her husband, called up as an IDF reservist, who is still in Gaza. I can’t imagine how worrying that must be.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to say much at this time about interfaith family inclusion. As I indicated last month, I hope that what’s happening in Israel will result in more open and generous attitudes among traditional Jews towards interfaith families and their family members who have different faith backgrounds, because the Jewish people need as broad a tent as possible.

In that regard, there was news from Israel that bears mention: a young woman murdered on October 7, whose father was Jewish but whose mother was not, was refused burial inside a Jewish cemetery. Under Jewish law, only Jews can be buried in Jewish cemeteries. So instead, she was buried in an area “outside the fence” of the cemetery.

The Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and Ha’aretz reported that quite an uproar resulted (I would say, very appropriately). As the woman’s mother said, her daughter “was murdered as a Jew.” Various politicians apologized for the insulting treatment that “bordered on criminal.” A solution was found, to lower the fence, and let it be covered eventually with shrubs, preserving the halachic separation, while not so obviously demeaning and ostracizing the non-halachic Jew.

As I’ve said many times, it behooves the traditional community to acknowledge that there is more than one way to be Jewish, and that it’s in the interest of the Jewish community as a whole to include those who want to be included but are not halachically Jewish, at least for all purposes where halachic status is not critical. They should want people who identify as Jews but are not halachically Jewish to stand in support of Israel. Relegating an October 7 victim to a clearly second-class area of a cemetery isn’t conducive to that.

Similarly, I had no issue with the fact that there was quite a heavy Orthodox presence at the Washington DC rally, but I was asked at least five times by earnest young men if I had put on tefillin yet that day. That question is very alienating to me; putting on tefillin is not part of my practice, and it’s not respectful of my choice to suggest that it should be. I wonder if the leaders of groups which encourage these young men ever consider the possible off-putting consequence, that it might distance people from Jewish engagement.

Finally, I can’t help but note that Hanukkah is rapidly approaching, and December of course is always the biggest month for interfaith family issues. I expect there will be less of that this year, with attention focused appropriately on what’s happening in Israel. It seems like a long time, but something I wrote that was published in the Forward five years ago still expresses my thoughts about the December holidays well: Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas.

August 2023 News from the Center

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Our Jerusalem Post Op-ed

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

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

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

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

Embark Acquired by Moishe House

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

This sounds like a great match.

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

Traditional Attitudes About Interfaith Marriage

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

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

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

Conservative Movement

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

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

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

Jewish Unity Efforts

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

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

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

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

In Other News

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Negative, More Positive

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Before getting to the recent news: I’ll be speaking at the Shames JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown, NY on Sunday, November 4 at 9:30. The Rivertowns Jewish Consortium is sponsoring this community conversation; if you are in the area, I hope you’ll participate in the discussion of these questions: Why do some interfaith families engage with the Jewish community more than others? Are there identifiable barriers that need to be eliminated to encourage engagement and to enrich communal life for all? RSVP to RJC@shamesjcc.org.

Israel

Over the years I’ve regularly described how negative pretty much every comment coming out of Israel is about intermarriage. It’s happened again, with news of the wedding of Israeli Jewish actor and Fauda star Tsahi Halevi to Israeli Arab news anchor Lucy Aharish. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said it was “not the right thing to do” and that “assimilation is consuming the Jewish people.”

Likud MK Oren Hazan suggested Aharish had “seduced a Jewish soul in order to hurt our nation and prevent more Jewish offspring,” and Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich said that Halevi would become “one of the lost Jews who had given in to assimilation.”

Even more temperate politicians who criticized these responses said they opposed interfaith marriage, including Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Culture Minister Miri Regev. Most Israeli politicians either don’t get the message, or don’t care, that their nasty comments about intermarriage are off-putting to the increasingly intermarried American Jewish community.

In a very positive sign, however, Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote that the narrative that interfaith marriages are an existential threat, that assimilation means destruction, is “deeply rooted,” “racist,” and “nationalistic.”

Is the struggle against assimilation a struggle to preserve Jewish values as they’ve been realized in Israel? If so, then it would be best to abandon that battle. The gefilte fish and hreime (spicy sauce), the bible, religion and heritage, can be preserved in mixed marriages as well.

The Jewish state has already crystallized an identity, which can only be enriched by assimilation, which is a normal, healthy process. Lucy Aharish and Tzachi Halevy may actually spawn a much more moral and civilized race than the one that has arisen here so far.

New Book

Jack Wertheimer, one of the most prominent critics of intermarriage, has written a new book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today. I haven’t finished reading it, but Wertheimer’s continuing distaste for intermarriage is evident. When he talks about “evidence of considerable weakness and vulnerability in Jewish religious life,” the first thing he mentions is “rates of intermarriage have spiraled up.” (at 3)

Wertheimer  quotes a rabbi who “in a moment of cynicism” defined the bar/bat mitzvah as “the wedding parents are able to control as a Jewish occasion,” lamenting that “most non-Orthodox parent have no assurance their child will… wed a Jewish person.” (at 47-48) He reiterates the old chestnut of ambiguous religious identity “discernible in the blurring or religious practices, if not outright syncretism, such as the celebration of both Hanukkah and Christmas, or Passover and Easter in [intermarried] households.” (at 60)

While begrudgingly complimenting the Reform movement for having “cornered the market of intermarried families seeking synagogue membership,” Wertheimer describes that outreach as “fraught with complications” and asks “are we to believe that their religious practices are unaffected?” (at 113, 117). He criticizes that “Non-Jewish parents who devotedly bring their children to services and classes are now publicly honored as ‘heroes’.” (at 118) And he expresses concern about Conservative synagogues “moving toward what they see as greater hospitality” to interfaith couples. (at 140)

I’ll have more to say about the book at another time.

Conservative Movement

While Jack Wertheimer expresses concern about Conservative synagogues “moving toward what they see as greater hospitality” to interfaith couples (at 140), there is a really excellent article by Ilana Marcus on Tablet, “Members Only,” about Conservative synagogues moving to include partners from different faith traditions as full members of the congregation.  Bravo to Laura Brooks, one such partner, who spoke at a congregational meeting about membership after reading in her synagogue newsletter that one reason to send children to Jewish camp was to make it more likely that they would marry a Jew:

She considered what that might mean, she told the group. She wondered if people in the community didn’t approve of her mixed-faith marriage. She worried about the message her sons were getting about their family after all she had done to nourish their Jewish identities and create a Jewish home. And she worried her kids might question their status as Jews, even though they had been through conversion as infants and even though she took them to and from Hebrew school every single week, just like all the other parents.

As Brookes spoke, she heard gasps. Afterward, members of the community came up to express their dismay. No one had imagined what it might be like for a non-Jewish mom raising Jewish kids to read a blurb about that particular feature of Jewish summer camp.

Bravo also to Rabbi Joshua Rabin, director of innovation at the United Synagogue, who is helping congregations reflect on the best ways to serve interfaith families.

Language Shapes Reality

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My friend Rabbi Robyn Frisch, director of InterfaithFamily / Philadelphia, wrote a wonderful Torah portion column titled “Language Helps to Shape Reality.” She notes that Jews too often use language that is insensitive to people in interfaith relationships, describing intermarriage as a problem, or suggesting people don’t “look Jewish,” or qualifying how they describe their child’s partner (“but they aren’t Jewish”).

Even though the person using the language may not intend for it to be hurtful, the impact is still the same. It’s hurtful to the person about whom it’s spoken, and it’s hurtful to the reality that we continue to shape.

Robyn prays that “may we, God’s partner’s in creation, use our words to shape a reality that is welcoming and inclusive to all those who choose to align themselves with the Jewish community.” I say a hearty “Amen” to that. But since the dust-up about Michael Chabon last month, on the score of shaping an inclusive reality with words, there have been some steps forward, some staying in place, and some steps backward.

In the steps forward column, in “Is non-Jew an insult?JTA editor Andy Silow-Carrol relates how he scoffed at first when a friend suggested he stop using the terms “non-Jew” and “gentile.” Then he appeared on a panel with Lindsey Silken, InterfaithFamily’s editorial director, who explained that leading with the negative can make the people it is referring to feel excluded and on the outside of the Jewish community. Now Andy is “not scoffing anymore… [I]f it avoids insulting someone, why not refer to individuals as the ‘partner from another faith’ or a ‘person from a different background’?”

In the staying in place column – by which I mean the absence of explicit language about interfaith families – Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote an interesting opinion piece about the Reform movement’s efforts to create a network of Reform congregations that power millennial communities. He writes that “many previously unconnected young people” are looking for these communities “because they seek a sense of purpose to anchor their lives” in our very uncertain times. He notes that this is a  “deeply questioning generation, one that doesn’t easily join synagogues or institutions in general, … fluid in their identities.” “Traditional forms of institutions don’t necessarily work for them. We need to help them find the place and the freedom to shape their own Judaism.”

This is a very positive development and I hope it grows. I couldn’t help but note that the first millennial whose personal story is described was raised by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. But it struck me that there was no other explicit reference to any particular effort to attract or provide community for  millennials who are either the children of intermarried parents, or millennials who are in interfaith relationships. I think that was a lost opportunity.

In an interesting juxtaposition, there was also an article about a trend in emerging spiritual communities, who were previously differentiated from synagogues because they didn’t have buildings, to starting to build buildings. Again, I couldn’t help but note that one of the four community founders quoted in the article did mention interfaith couples – she said that there wasn’t a space where Conservative Jews, “Jews by choice, Reform Jews, interfaith couples, where people could come in and be able to really witness and feel a Judaism that was closer to something that they would practice.” But again, there wasn’t a mention in the article of any particular effort or focus on engaging interfaith families in emerging spiritual communities. I think that was a lost opportunity.

In the steps backward column is a statement by Issac Herzog, the new head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who reportedly said about a trip to the US: “I encountered something that I called an actual plague [magefa]. I saw my friends’ children married or coupled with non-Jewish partners … And we are talking about millions. And then I said there must be a campaign, a solution.”

Referring to intermarriage as a “plague” is about as diametrically opposed to using welcoming and inclusive language as one could get. In an interview with Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner, Herzog said reactions to his statement “‘distorted the meaning and intention of what I said’… The discourse on interfaith relations is different in Israel, he said. He was using magefa as a slang word: ‘I didn’t mean it in any negative terms.’”

After noting that Herzog was educated in the US, Eisner says she is “willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here — as long as takes this early stumble as a warning sign that many American Jews are becoming increasingly unwilling to let anyone, from Israel or their own communal organizations, tell them what to think and how to behave and who to love.” In contrast, Israeli blogger and writer Jonathan Ofir, writing on Mondoweiss, says:

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, I know the inside and outside of the Hebrew language and its colloquial usage. You understood it fully in English. It means exactly what you think it means. It is of purely negative connotation. For Herzog to suggest that he “didn’t mean it in any negative terms” is just an insult to the intelligence.

In “Letter to an Israeli-Jewish Friend,” Eisner also wrote a letter to an Israeli friend in which she appears to equate intermarriage and assimilation:

Americans, for the most part, love us. They love us so much that it’s perfectly okay to marry us — which accounts for growing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, and therefore a very mixed blessing.

Overall, I have to say that I think the steps backward and the staying in place outweigh the steps forward on inclusivity – wouldn’t you agree? In the end, the language people use when they talk about intermarriage reflects their underlying attitudes about the issue. Andy Silow-Carroll’s piece starts out by saying that the term “non-Jew” is useful “[u]nless you want to pretend there are no distinctions between people who identify as Jews and people who identify as something else — and making such distinctions strikes me as about 85 percent of the entire Jewish enterprise, starting at Sinai.” The main point of my forthcoming book is that in order to engage interfaith families, we need to treat partners from different faith backgrounds as equal to Jews. If we really adopted that radically inclusive attitudes, language choices would be very clear. But we have a long way to go to get to that point.

Finally, my friend Rabbi Brian Field, in his take on the Chabon debate, suggests that a good place to start in determining those attitudes is the Torah:

How one reads Torah will determine how one approaches any question about Judaism, including intermarriage. If one reads Torah with an emphasis on the parts that promote exclusion of people of different backgrounds, one can see intermarriage as an affront to Torah.  But if one reads Torah with an emphasis on the voices that promote inclusion of people of different backgrounds, one can see intermarriage as an authentic and necessary part of the mitzvah of Jewish marriage.

The Latest on Birthright Israel and Intermarriage

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

The study makes many interesting observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Outlooks Greet the New Year

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

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

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

Hillel and our Jewish community benefit enormously from that diversity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Do Intermarried Jews Support Israel?

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In an article in Ha’aretz, Michael Oren: New book meant to enlist American Jews to fight Iran deal, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US, has launched a PR tour for his new book “Ally,” which according to press reports addresses President Obama’s attitudes and positions towards Israel.

One of Oren’s comments as reported in the Ha’aretz article demands a response:

Oren discussed what he described as the unprecedented predominance of American Jews in the Obama administration – “there were discussions in the White House in which there were six Jews – 3 Americans and 3 Israelis, discussing a Palestinian state – and the only non-Jewish person in the room was the President or the Vice President.” He said that the non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews in the administration – “have a hard time understanding the Israeli character.”

It’s not clear if Oren’s comment was meant to be limited to particular American Jews in the Obama administration; a Times of Israel article about the same interview has Oren saying that “the non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews don’t fully grasp Israel’s position.” In any case, there is a clear implication that Jews who are intermarried, because they are intermarried, are not supportive of Israel. That’s an offensive notion to which we strongly object.

At InterfaithFamily we don’t take positions on political issues about Israel. But we strongly support Israel’s right to exist in peace, and we strongly encourage interfaith couples and families to travel to Israel, because all experience shows that doing so leads to further Jewish engagement, which is our ultimate goal. That increased Jewish engagement, for interfaith couples who do travel to Israel, can include increased feelings of attachment to and support for Israel – in not only the Jewish partner, but the partner of another background as well. That’s the kind of attitude shift that people who care about Israel should want to have happen.

People who want the American Jewish community to support Israel should be careful what they say about interfaith families, who make up a large and growing segment of our community. Suggesting that intermarried Jews are not supportive of Israel is likely to be discouraging and off-putting to them and hardly conducive to strengthening their support for Israel. It’s especially disappointing for that kind of comment to come from Ambassador Oren, who was raised in the United States and spent years here as Israel’s ambassador. Let’s hope he clarifies what he said or meant to say.

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

Young American Jews, Israel and Intermarriage, Revisited

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I’m feeling a little vindicated after reading the Jewish Week’s recent editorial, Future Rabbis, Conflicted About Israel.

Almost exactly a year ago, there was controversy in the Jewish media over Peter Beinart’s argument that young American Jews feel conflict between their liberalism and Zionism because of the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians, resulting in less support for Israel. In a long blog post, Young American Jews, Israel, and Intermarriage, I disagreed with Steven M. Cohen’s response that the “primary driver” for young American Jews’ detachment from Israel was not Israeli policies, but instead was intermarriage.

I’m feeling vindicated because in the recent editorial, the Jewish Week comments on recent news that a number of rabbinical students from many American rabbinical schools come back from their year of study in Israel feeling conflicted about the Jewish state. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that many are feeling some degree of alienation, consistent with widespread polls and reports about their peers throughout the American Jewish community.” “When spending extended time in Israel, young, idealistic American Jews who have been raised on liberal, humanitarian values rub up against the reality of a people struggling for survival while maintaining a democratic society.”

If rabbinical students, from across the denominational spectrum, are feeling alienated from Israel, it seems to me that it’s time to reevaluate the idea that intermarriage is the main source of that problem.

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