February 2024 News from the Center

|

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.

* * * * *

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

December 2023 News from the Center

|

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

December Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

Attitudes about Interfaith Marriage

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

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

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

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

Research

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

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

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

I liked what the review said about terminology:

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

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

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

* * * * * *

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

Remembering David Ellenson z”l

|

I am one of the many people who was so fortunate to fall within the orbit of David Ellenson, a person of the most remarkable generosity of spirit.

I say this because my advocacy over the years pushed on two issues that were complicated for the head of Hebrew Union College – rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples, and admission of rabbinic students who were in interfaith relationships.

Despite my pushing, and I’m sure some differences of opinion, he became a supporter, and a friend.

We first met in June 2006 when InterfaithFamily (now 18Doors) was an exhibitor at a CCAR convention in San Diego and really scrapping for attention. I excitedly reported to a colleague afterwards that I had handed the president of Hebrew Union College an invitation to a reception and information session that we sponsored, and that he had come!

At some point, though, after Rabbi Ellenson was quoted in a publication as reiterating HUC’s policy not to admit rabbinic students who were in interfaith relationships, I wrote a letter to the editor criticizing that position. Rabbi Ellenson had argued that that rabbis should be role models; I said what a great role model it would be for interfaith families to see a rabbi who was intermarried.

In March 2008 I wrote an op-ed for the New York Jewish Week emphasizing the importance of interfaith couples being able to find rabbis to officiate at their weddings.  That April, I was invited to a reception at which CJP’s Barry Shrage and Rabbi Ellenson spoke. I wrote David a long email in advance, discussing two studies that had recently come out that showed the positive impact of rabbinic officiation on future Jewish engagement. At the session, Rabbi Ellenson spoke at some length about how he had been approached by four families that week asking him to speak to children who were intermarrying. He mentioned InterfaithFamily’s work several times. I followed up with some resources we were developing, which he said he would surely use.

In March 2010, I attended another CCAR convention as an exhibitor. This I will not forget – Rabbi Ellenson introduced me to his wife Rabbi Jacqueline Ellenson  by saying that I was “doing God’s work” – and she said she had used InterfaithFamily’s website and resources for a wedding in her own family.

In October 2015, InterfaithFamily hosted an afternoon of learning, and an evening reception honoring Barry Shrage, and me on my retiring as CEO. I was incredibly honored that Rabbi Ellenson spoke at the program. He sent me an outline of his remarks ahead of time – he said that our work had made a positive difference to interfaith couples received a welcoming attitude in contrast to the rejection of the past. And he outlined the remaining challenge – how to include interfaith couples and families while maintaining integrity of the Jewish community – how to maintain a Judaism of hospitality and authenticity.

In his outline Rabbi Ellenson referred to InterfaithFamily as an “Institute.” I thanked him for the promotion, saying we hadn’t been called that before; with his characteristic humor, he replied, “Institute? Organization? What’s in a name?”

I am sorry to say that my last contact with Rabbi Ellenson was five years ago. I asked if he would write an endorsement for my book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, and he agreed. Stuart Matlins had advised me that Rabbi Ellenson was probably the single most highly regarded leader who the desired audience of my book would look up to. So, at the top of the cover of the book, Rabbi Ellenson’s blurb appears: “Must reading for Jewish laypersons as well as Jewish communal and religious leaders. Vital for all who are concerned about the future of Jewish life in North America.”

Since the news of Rabbi Ellenson’s untimely death I’ve seen many well-deserved tributes from many corners of the Jewish world. We have lost a truly great leader. I send sincere sympathy to his wife and children and their families.

My Experience as an Intermarried Rabbi

|
Guest Post by Rabbi Ed Stafman

At 30 years old, I married my wife – the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. I considered myself an atheist and secular Jew. Because religion was unimportant to me, it had little bearing on who I would marry. My family put no pressure on me about my intention to marry the woman who would become my wife.

At age 38, when our first child was turned five, I felt that she should have a Jewish education, despite the fact that I despised my own [Orthodox] Jewish childhood education. We lived in an overwhelmingly Christian city and with my wife’s family being so strongly connected to the church, my failure to give my daughter a Jewish education would likely have led to her becoming Christian by default, and that was unacceptable to me, although I didn’t understand why at the time. My wife was very gracious and supportive. So, we joined the local Reform synagogue and enrolled our daughter in the religious school there.

As time when on, we became more involved in the synagogue. I taught seventh grade religious school (I was able to read a week ahead of the kids!). The synagogue became a center of our social lives and a source of friends and community. I served on the Board for many years, eventually as President, attended URJ biennials, served on the URJ’s Social Action Commission, and the like. But Jewish spirituality was not a big part of the draw.

In my mid 40s, I serendipitously found myself at a Jewish Renewal spiritual retreat. I had found my spiritual home. For the next several years, I attended as many of these retreats as I could.  When I returned home, the first phone call I got was always from my wife’s mother, a [Christian] spiritual director, who wanted to know what happened and everything I learned.  As time went on, I began to meet rabbinic students and faculty of ALEPH’s Rabbinic program and became more and more drawn to Jewish learning and later, to perhaps ultimately becoming a rabbi.

When application time rolled around in 2000, Rabbi Marcia Prager, the Dean of the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, explained to me that the application process vis-à-vis intermarried students was holistic in its approach, and that while intermarriage was a factor, they look at the whole person, his/her circumstances, whether they would serve the Jewish community well as a rabbi, etc. She was very clear about one thing: it was highly unlikely that any congregation would hire an intermarried rabbi and she didn’t want me to harbor false hopes.  At the time, I wasn’t all that interested in becoming a congregational rabbi, so I was not bothered by this probable limitation.

I had considered other rabbinic programs at the time, but I was told by HUC, RRC, and Hebrew College that because I was intermarried, I could not be accepted, and I was not about to get divorced after 16 years of a good marriage or to be dishonest about it. While HUC and RRC did not explain their reasoning, Rabbi Art Green of Hebrew College Rabbinic School explained to me that their philosophy was out of concern for families that might be struggling with a child intermarrying and wanting them to work it out among themselves without the child being able to point to the rabbi and saying “the rabbi’s intermarried, why can’t I?”. I was persuaded by that argument at the time, but I suspect that, in the last 20 years, there are fewer and fewer families having those difficult conversations. Both of my children are in long term relationships, one with a Jew, one not. Should they decide to marry, I wouldn’t think of debating them about the religious status of their chosen partner.

In any event, I was accepted into the ALEPH program and spent the next eight years in it, part time at first. I was the third intermarried person in the program. (One had since been divorced and a couple more entered during my time, at least one of whom subsequently divorced). Throughout my time in the program, my commitment to living a Jewish life deepened significantly and it was not always easy being married to someone who did not share that driving force. However, my experience in that regard was not much different from colleagues who were married to secular Jews who did not want to be so Jewish! Along the way, there were several spouse support groups, mostly consisting of secular Jewish spouses, but my wife fit right in. None of the spouses thought they were marrying a rabbi all those years earlier and these second career decisions required adjustments and flexibility. Often overlooked by those thinking about intermarried rabbis is the impact on the marriage, where it is bound to pose challenges. Happily, we worked through the challenges, owing to my wife’s graciousness.  She joined me in many Jewish practices and events. I would later note that next to me, she knew the liturgy better than anyone else in the congregation. She attended services regularly, played the piano during services, and her Pesach brisket rivals any.  However, although she explored it, she determined that conversion wasn’t in the cards for her.

Along the rabbinic school path, I had a student pulpit, which changed my thinking about congregational work. In 2008, a few months before I was to be ordained, an ad came across the rabbi listserve, reading: “Outside Magazine Says Bozeman, MT is the #1 Place to Live in the U.S. and We’re Looking for a Rabbi. Any questions, call Josh at #######.” It looked like a great opportunity, but the caution of the Dean from eight years earlier was still ringing in my ears. I called Josh to inform him that I was considering applying, but that I wouldn’t waste everyone’s time if being intermarried was a dealbreaker. After consulting the search committee, he told me to go ahead and apply. I ended up being hired for a few months as a student rabbi while I awaited ordination, and then spent ten years serving that community, ultimately retiring and becoming rabbi emeritus two years ago. I later heard from search committee members that they thought that by calling Josh, I was trying to game the process and gain an advantage by letting them know ahead of time that I was intermarried so that they would look upon me more favorably, since they were 60+% intermarried!

During my tenure as rabbi, I’m not aware of any negative issue that ever arose because I was intermarried. I suspect there were a few whispers in the local Orthodox community, but they too were mostly intermarried families, so it wasn’t a major issue. Being intermarried had the advantage of giving me credibility with non-Jewish spouses when I told them how much they were welcome, and to talk about conversion in a way that they knew was non-judgmental.  It increased my credibility in the outside — and especially the interfaith — community, which in turn, lifted the congregation. In the progressive Jewish world where the role of Rebbetzin has all but been eliminated, people expect the rabbi’s wife to have her own identity.

At 66 years old and having lived this journey through rabbinic school and a ten year pulpit, with its trials, failures, and successes, I believe that Rabbi Marcia Prager was correct: the decision to admit an intermarried rabbinical student must be a holistic one. The ultimate question ought to be whether the applicant is somebody whose ordination will, on the whole, lift up, inspire, and advance the interests of the Jewish people, local Jewish communities, and individual Jews. Do we want to turn away those who would be good rabbis by those standards but who intermarried many years before and came to fall in love with Judaism later, simply because his/her spouse declines to convert? In this world of evolving Jewish life, there are many factors to consider and, in my opinion, no one factor should be wholly determinative. How long has the person been married? How strong is the marriage? What are the non-Jewish spouse’s thoughts, concerns, feelings, and what will his/her role in the rabbi’s professional life look like? Is the spouse actively practicing another religion, which could pose a more significant problem? What kind of work does the applicant want to do? If congregational work is the calling, does s/he want a small more rural congregation where most people are intermarried or a congregation in a large Jewish metro area that might have different expectations? How will the applicant and his/her spouse deal with the personal and communal challenges that arise? It’s important to consider that many of these same questions can be asked of an applicant married to a secular/uninvolved Jew, who will often face the same challenges. If we are going to tell spouses of interfaith families that they are welcome in our congregations, it seems hypocritical to say that intermarriage automatically disqualifies an otherwise committed rabbinic applicant.

* * *

After some 25 years of law practice, Ed Stafman spent eight years in the ALEPH Rabbinic program. After ordination, he served as Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, MT for ten years, where he is now Rabbi Emeritus. He is a past president of OHALAH, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. He was elected to the Montana House of Representatives, District 62, in the November 2020 election.

Seminary Admissions: Modern-day Discrimination

|
GUEST POST BY SUSAN RIZZO

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a dentist.  Why?  My dad’s best friend was a pediatric dentist.  He had a cool office with ceiling-mounted television screens above each chair and video arcade consoles in his waiting room.  I figured there couldn’t be a better job!  Here I am in my 40s, having long ago chosen education over dentistry, and now ready for a career change (preferably one that doesn’t involve my putting my hands in another’s mouth).  Since being nominated to participate in the Wexner Heritage Program last year, I am very interested in helping shape the Jewish future.

Life-long Reform Jew that I am, I started with the website of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the movement’s main seminary, to learn what it takes to become ordained.  I learned there about the “extraordinary five-year journey” which promised to “expand my intellectual curiosity, nurture my search for spiritual meaning, and fulfill my aspirations to implement tikkun olam, the healing of the world.”  Apart from some issues of practicality (distance, expense, etc.), I am ready to be signed up for what sounded like the adventure and career of a lifetime!

The (non-exhaustive) list of program requirements for HUC-JIR seminary programs includes:  Bachelor’s degree.  Check!  GPA of 3.0 or higher.  Check!  Year of college-level Modern Hebrew.  Check!  Readiness for graduate school.  Check!  (I’m going to assume completion of two prior master’s degrees constitutes readiness.)  Commitment to and leadership experience within Reform Judaism and K’lal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood).  Check and check!  Ability to think analytically and express oneself clearly in speech and writing.  (I’ll let you be the judge.)

Wow, I could be a rabbi or cantor!  Except, no.  “Current policy states that applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program.”  That’s right, my most amazing partner of nearly 18 years, with whom I have raised a Jewish family for more than a dozen, is not himself Jewish.  Apparently, that’s enough to disqualify me from applying to an HUC-JIR rabbinic or cantorial program. Not only does this seem counter to the values espoused by Reform Judaism, but per their website, HUC-JIR “does not discriminate on the basis of disability, race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, genetic information, marital status, sex, age, sexual orientation, veteran status or gender identity and expression” (all emphases added).

I decided to invite HUC-JIR to help me see how precluding my candidacy based on the religion/ancestry of my spouse does not violate their own equal opportunity and non-discrimination policies.  Emails to Cantorial, Admissions and finally the Equal Opportunity Coordinator resulted in my having a phone conversation with the Associate Director of Recruitment and Admissions, who suggested that a policy change might be on the horizon.  That was late 2018.  As recently as last month, no change had yet been implemented, so I reached out again – this time to the new HUC-JIR president.  He thanked me for my feedback, conceded that others have expressed similar concerns, and assured me of the school’s on-going commitment to religious pluralism.  He also pointed out that rabbis and cantors serve as exemplars to the Jewish community and, therefore, have to be held to high personal standards.

I do hold myself to high standards, both personally and professionally.  Does my having intermarried somehow mean I can’t be a model for the Jewish community?  I reject that premise, both because it offends and because it really does not seem grounded in the present reality.  Has anyone noticed how many self-identified Reform Jews intermarry?  A LOT!  Do we not think congregants deserve to be led by a reflection of themselves?  The implication seems to be that my having intermarried means my having not chosen a Jewish life, but clearly that’s not true.  Not only was I chosen by my temple’s clergy to participate in the Wexner Heritage Program; I am presently matriculated in the Spertus Institute Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program; I serve on four committees at my temple, including one I chair; I sing in various temple choirs and am right now co-constructing our temple’s first summer lay-led service; our two children are enrolled in our temple’s religious school and will become b’nai mitzvah next year.  Yet somehow none of that “counts” because having intermarried makes me an unfit model?

Shockingly, HUC-JIR isn’t the only non-Orthodox seminary that won’t admit intermarried candidates.  One self-ascribed “pluralistic” seminary I recently talked to “reassured” me that my husband “would likely convert, knowing how important it was to me.”  That’s not the point – he shouldn’t have to!  My husband’s religion (it happens he only practices Judaism, even though he never converted) has zero bearing on whether I’d make a good rabbi or cantor. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College seems to know this; they decided to admit and ordain intermarried candidates in 2015.  It’s time the Reform movement, which I’ve called home since birth, caught up!

At the end of the day, discriminating against intermarried Jews violates Reform Judaism’s proclaimed emphasis on liberalism and evolution.  A half-century after the rabbinate opened to women, it’s time it opened to all Jews, regardless of race, sexuality, gender identity, or marital status.  It’s time that the Jews in the pews see ourselves reflected more fully on the bimah and that we stop being intermarriage “shamed.”

* * *

Susan Rizzo is a life-long member of Reform synagogues, including most recently Temple Sinai in Rochester, New York, where her family have been active members since 2012.  Her husband is not Jewish but participates extensively in temple life.  Their two sons have recently begun training for their 2021 joint b’nai mitzvah.

How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?

|

published in eJewishPhilanthropy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Should Accept Rabbis Who Intermarry

|

In a Forward editorial today, Jane Eisner says we should expect a rabbi to raise his or her children in a Jewish home, to maintain that home as the most sacred place in the Jewish eco-system. The fallacy in her argument is her assumption that intermarried rabbis would not do so. People who seek to become rabbis do so precisely because they are deeply committed to ongoing Jewish life – not only for themselves, but also for their communities, as the Reconstructionists realize. There is no reason to believe that intermarried rabbis would be any different; indeed, given the challenging process to become and then serve as a rabbi, it is absurd to do so.

When Eisner says we should expect a rabbi to partner with another Jew – that’s the tribalism that the Reconstructionists report alienates many younger progressive Jews and current or would be rabbinical students. If the goal is Jewish commitment to the home, synagogue and beyond, and if interfaith couples can demonstrate that commitment – as more and more do – then why is it necessary for Jews to partner with other Jews, beyond the assertion that “Jews should marry Jews” or worse, that “Jews are better.”

Interfaith couples resolve the “inherent complications” Eisner cites all the time, in ways that are conducive to ongoing Jewish engagement. There is no reason to think that intermarried rabbis would not do the same; in fact, there is more reason to think that they would. And because non-Orthodox Jewish communities are so heavily intermarried, intermarried rabbis would be excellent role models for those communities.

I’m glad to see Eisner say that “It is a propitious time to offer bold ideas to make Judaism more accessible and welcoming, to strengthen commitment among those born Jews and encourage others to join.” The Reconstructionists’ decision is precisely such a bold decision. Over the years I have talked with many would-be rabbis who lamented that because they were intermarried they could not attend any major seminary. I predict that being the first, the Reconstructionists will benefit from many excellent applicants and students.

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

Bravo Reconstructionists!

|

The Reconstructionist movement has once again led the way to a more inclusive Judaism by taking the bold step to accept and graduate rabbinic students who are intermarried or in committed relationships with partners who are not Jewish.

The main argument advanced against ordaining intermarried rabbis is that rabbis should serve as role models for Jewish life and commitment. The Reconstructionist movement reaffirmed that “all rabbinical candidates must model commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal, and family lives” – but explained their decision in large part because “Jews with non-Jewish partners demonstrat[e] these commitments every day in many Jewish communities.”

Reconstructionism approaches Jews and Judaism not simply as representing a culture or a religion, but as a people and a civilization. Its borders and boundaries are porous and constantly evolving. “The Jewish present and Jewish future depend on our shifting focus toward Jews ‘doing Jewish’ in ways that are meaningful to them rather than on ‘being Jewish’ because of bloodline or adherence to mandated behaviors,”… “The issue of Jews intermarrying is no longer something we want to police; we want to welcome Jews and the people who love us to join us in the very difficult project of bringing meaning, justice, and hope into our world.”

We send our very hearty congratulations to the Reconstructionist movement for their courageous leadership. For years we have heard from people eager to become rabbis who were barred by the major seminaries from applying. A prediction: the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College will be attracting and graduating some very outstanding rabbis – with partners from different faith traditions – in the future, and those rabbis in turn will lead the way to a more inclusive Judaism.

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

More on Ordaining Intermarried Rabbis

|

Kudos to Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, for a powerful contribution to the debate over ordaining intermarried rabbis: What Intermarried Rabbis Can Teach Us. Building on Rabbi Ellen Lippman’s inter-partnered rabbi’s perspective, that we’ve blogged about before, Paul adds his own very important perspective:

Rabbis with nontraditional families like my own make me feel more included. Conveying why Judaism is still relevant to them provides me with access I wouldn’t feel elsewhere. The focus is not on how you come in, but what you get out of doing Jewish — in other words, why it’s so amazing.

Definitely worth reading — and considering by those deciding the issue.

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

A Plea to Ordain Intermarried Rabbis

|

Ellen Lippman, rabbi of Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, has an important contribution in today’s Forward to the debate about admitting and ordaining as rabbis people in interfaith relationships, an issue we’ve blogged about frequently. In an “open letter” to her alma mater, Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Lippman, who is partnered with a person who is not Jewish, writes,

We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.

Rabbi Lippman argues that an “inclusive vision of Jewish leadership” means that “we should not push away those who want to become leaders of the Jewish community as rabbis just because they are intermarried.” And she argues that:

A rabbi is a role model, and there are many kinds of role models. Intermarriage is a fact of American Jewish life. We can do a better job of connecting intermarried Jews to synagogues, rabbis and Jewish life. One way is to knowingly ordain intermarried rabbis.

It will be fascinating to follow this issue as it is debated at HUC.

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