Interfaith Inclusion at the Biennials

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Conflicting views about conversion were at the core of what was said – and not said – about interfaith inclusion at the recent biennial conventions of the Conservative and Reform movements.

With 84% of new households that include non-Orthodox Jews being interfaith, it clearly is essential to engage more of those couples if any liberal Jewish activity is to thrive in the future. Experts agree that people engage with a group if they feel included – that they belong. But many Jews think that if partners from different faith backgrounds want to belong, they can and should convert.

Holding up conversion as a condition to inclusion – a persistent view expressed at the biennials – is a bad strategy that will push more couples away at the outset. Instead, we should see conversion “for the right reasons, and at the right time” as an incidental possible future outcome of an approach of full inclusion without condition that will bring more couples in.

That interfaith inclusion was more of a focus at the United Synagogue/Rabbinical Assembly gathering represents a sea change. In the past when I would try to interest Conservative rabbis in InterfaithFamily’s work, most were standoffish because of our position on conversion: when I said it was a wonderful personal choice but if promoted too aggressively would turn people away, the typical reaction was “not good enough.”

With membership declining, attributed by most to the movement’s less than welcoming response to interfaith families, attitudes are changing. Over the past two years, the United Synagogue partnered with InterfaithFamily on a survey about welcoming interfaith families in Conservative synagogues, the subject of a well-attended biennial session.

The most striking development occurred when Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz delivered a passionate statement that Conservative rabbis should be permitted to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples who intend to raise their children Jewish. Rabbi Eliot Cosgrove advocated in response for standing by the sociological and halachic value of inmarriage, and positioning the Conservative movement as the movement of conversion. Acknowledging that many might not convert, he said it is not the movement’s responsibility to serve everyone or to risk standing for nothing.

Rabbi Gardenswartz had this to say about conversion:

It would be great if Christopher [the hypothetical partner of Rachel] would convert.  Conversion would clearly be our preferred option. We would move heaven and earth to encourage him to convert if he were open to it.  But here is what he says…. I love Rachel for who she is.  I want to be loved for who I am.  Maybe in time I might choose to convert, but I want to do it for the right reasons, and in the right time.  The right reason is that this is something that I want to do, that I am drawn to.   The right time is when I feel ready.  I don’t want to do it to make her parents happy, or to make clergy happy, or as a condition to a wedding.  I am happy if our children are raised Jewish.  I would be partners with Rachel in their getting a Jewish education. But I am not ready to convert to Judaism unless I feel it is something I want to do because it feels right to me.

Half of the room enthusiastically applauded after each rabbi spoke, reflecting the movement’s sharp division. Rabbi Gardenswartz noted one outcome of saying no is couples might go to “the fabulous Reform rabbi, of the thriving Reform synagogue, the next town over.” But the situation wasn’t so rosy at the URJ Biennial.

Out of more than 100 learning sessions, only four were focused on interfaith families. At one, I presented the results of a survey the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism (CFRIJ) conducted of interfaith inclusion policies and practices at Reform synagogues. One key takeaway was that leadership positions continue to be largely restricted to Jews; in only 43% of congregations can partners from different faith traditions serve as board members, and in only 21% as officers. Second, while ritual participation has opened up, with 70% of congregations allowing parents from different faith traditions to have or join in an Aliyah at the b’nai mitzvah of their children, it is not clear how many congregations allow partners from a different faith tradition to recite the words of the Torah blessings. Many congregational leaders clearly view conversion as a requirement for full inclusion in leadership and ritual.

Shortly before the Biennial, CFRIJ announced a grass-roots campaign to have Reform congregations propose a resolution at the 2021 URJ Biennial calling for full inclusion of interfaith families and partners from different faith traditions. One rabbi strongly objected, saying that if partners from different faith traditions can do everything Jews can do, Jewish identity would be meaningless and no one would convert, and that it’s like citizenship, where aliens have certain rights but can’t vote.

As I said at the learning session, addressing what inclusion means, maintaining high boundaries and applying the citizenship analogy – essentially, requiring conversion as a condition to full inclusion – is a recipe for decline. At another biennial session, on supporting “Jewish adjacent” members, two partners from different faith traditions detailed their extensive Jewish engagement in both their families’ lives and in their synagogues. Questions from the audience commented that they were more Jewishly engaged than many Jews, and wondered how they felt about conversion. Both indicated that for their very personal reasons, it wasn’t the right time, but it might be in the future.

The most striking development was Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ speech, As Numerous as the Stars of Heaven. After stating that “Jewish life was meant to expand and grow” and urging the Reform movement to enlarge the size of its tent, the speech focused almost entirely on embracing Jews of Color, and ended with a call to action to address antiracism. I am all in favor of embracing Jews of Color, but the impact of doing so is dwarfed by the potential numerical gain available from embracing partners from different faith traditions.

Rabbi Jacobs did make a passing reference to “so many people out there who are Jewishly adjacent… and they are part of this family of ours.” But instead of saying “There are millions of North American Jews … looking for a place to belong,” I wish Rabbi Jacobs had referred to millions of “North American Jews and their partners from different faith backgrounds.” When he said, “It is time that we make every person who comes under our tent feel like they already belong,” I wish he had said “that means partners from different faith backgrounds, too.”

The leaders of liberal Judaism are missing opportunities to explicitly prioritize engaging interfaith families, the defining challenge of our time. Another takeaway from the survey was that congregations do not talk effectively about their interfaith inclusion policies and practices either among their leadership or with their congregants, with only 18% publishing them on their websites.  We need to rise above the lingering ambivalence that conditions inclusion on conversion and instead embrace full inclusion as our goal.

A Three-Generation Yes or a Three-Generation No? Guest Post by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz

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The Center is honored to publish with permission a statement by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz, Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanuel, Newton MA, delivered at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Biennial, December 9, 2019 – 11 Kislev 5780.

Background: I was asked by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to participate in a panel to discuss interfaith marriage. The views in this statement are mine alone. I do not purport to speak for our synagogue, our board, or my colleagues.  This is from me, not from Temple Emanuel.  These are words from my heart, and I recognize  and totally respect that reasonable people can reasonably disagree.  We are deeply blessed to inhabit a religious tradition, and a thriving community, that can handle difference, diversity, and complexity with love and with mutual respect.

Rachel and Christopher walk into my study.  Rachel grew up at Temple Emanuel, a Conservative shul in Newton, MA.  She went to our religious school. Had her Bat Mitzvah here. Remained active in USY.  She always assumed she would marry a Jew.  She only dated Jews. She just didn’t have any mazal in finding a partner.  In fact, often when she told the Jewish men she dated that Judaism was important to her, all too often what she got back in return was disdain.  They would share their bad religious school story.  They could not understand how any adult could take this stuff seriously.

One day, when not even looking, not on an app, not on a blind date, just in the ordinary course of life, she meets Christopher.  Christopher is not Jewish, but he does not see himself as connected to any religious tradition.  He is thoroughly unchurched.

Rachel and Christopher become friends, and then more than friends.  They have a connection that is organic and deep. They fall in love.  While Christopher is not Jewish, he deeply respects Rachel’s Jewishness, and he wants to support her.  They would like to get married, and now Rachel, who has known me for 23 years, and her fiancé come to ask me to officiate at their wedding.  They are both 33 years old.

It would be great if Christopher would convert.  Conversion would clearly be our preferred option. We would move heaven and earth to encourage him to convert if he were open to it.  But here is what he says.

He says: I love Rachel for who she is.  I want to be loved for who I am.  Maybe in time I might choose to convert, but I want to do it for the right reasons, and in the right time.  The right reason is that this is something that I want to do, that I am drawn to.   The right time is when I feel ready.  I don’t want to do it to make her parents happy, or to make clergy happy, or as a condition  to a wedding.  I am happy if our children are raised Jewish.  I would be partners with Rachel in their getting a Jewish education. But I am not ready to convert to Judaism unless I feel it is something I want to do because it feels right to me.

I think Christopher’s position is perfectly reasonable.  I believe officiating at their interfaith wedding is the right thing to do at the Jewish level and at the human level.  Let’s take them in turn.

Why is it the right thing to do at the Jewish level?  Because whatever response we offer Rachel and Christopher is a three-generation response. Don’t miss this point. If you remember nothing else of what I said, remember this:  No is a three-generation no.  Yes is a three-generation yes.

If we say no, what will happen? Does anyone seriously think that Rachel and Christopher will not get married if I say no?  Of course not. There is a 100 % chance of them getting married.  Perhaps they will get married by a justice of the peace; or by a friend or sibling deputized as clergy for the day; secular contexts devoid of Yiddishkeit.   Secular contexts which will not lead into a future of Jewish engagement, especially since their rabbi said no.

The best case, for their Jewish future, is that they will be married by the fabulous Reform rabbi, of the thriving Reform synagogue, the next town over.  That is good for them. Good for their Jewish future. Good for the Reform synagogue.  Bad for us.  Rachel and Christopher will join that Reform synagogue.  When their children are born, they will be educated at that Reform synagogue.  And then it is inevitable, as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, that at some point Rachel’s parents will send a note to our executive director saying:  We are joining the Reform synagogue where our children and grandchildren are members.  Feel free to release the high holiday seats we have had for the last thirty years.   A no is a three-generation no.  A three-generation no will hollow out our communities.  It is already happening. We know this.

Walk into most Conservative shuls on a Shabbat morning. You see a lack of young people. We don’t have engaged young adults.  We need Rachel and Christopher. We need Rachel and Christopher’s children.  We need Rachel’s parents.  If we want Rachel and Christopher, their children, their energy, no is not the way to go. It makes no sense to say you are welcome into our shuls, after you are married by somebody else, when the very fact that our clergy will not marry them makes them feel not welcomed.

What happens if we say yes?  Yes is not a guarantee.  But yes is better, and here is why.  If I officiate at Rachel and Christopher’s wedding, then I will meet with them six times, six one-hour sessions, before the wedding.  That creates connection. That creates relationship. If they live in Boston, they will join our shul.  When they have children, they will attend our schools.  If I say no to their wedding, what they hear, and what they feel, is no. I don’t get the six hours with them. Panting after them after the wedding which I spurned to say, hey, I can put up a mezuzah for you, is not going to work.

But saying no to Rachel and Christopher is also the wrong human move.  For me, this is the beating heart of this whole matter.

Our biggest problem is not intermarriage.  Our biggest problem is the loneliness epidemic in America.  Too many of our children are lonely.  Too many of our children come home to an empty apartment.  Too many of our children have nobody to share their day with.  Too many of our children have nobody to share their life with.  Too many of our children have looked but have not found.   Too many of our children have been dancing at other people’s weddings but not at their own.  Too many of our children have wondered and worried will my day ever come? Rachel’s day came. She found her mensch.  She found her match.  She is genuinely happy.  I am genuinely happy for her. No asterisks. No qualifications. Happy that at long last she has a companion to walk with in life. I want to be there to celebrate with her.

Now I know that many here disagree with me, passionately.  And that is fine.  The last thing I am trying to do is impose my views on anybody.  I just don’t want to have anybody’s views imposed on me.  I don’t want New York deciding these intimate and crucial issues for me.

Let rabbis in the field decide.  The very fact that we are having this conversation suggests multiple points of view and abundant good faith and goodwill.  Some rabbis might be comfortable doing the entire ceremony. Others may prefer to stand with the couple under their chuppah and offer them blessings and words of love but not officiate.  Others might hew to the traditional position.  Let each rabbi figure it out on his, her or their own.

Bet on us. Bet on our moral and religious intuitions. Bet on our love of the Jewish people and humanity. Bet on our ability to do the right thing as we see it.  Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do We Mean By Inclusion?

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Remarks at 2019 URJ Biennial Learning Session, Embracing Interfaith Inclusion in Your Congregation

Inclusion is more than welcoming. That’s what advocates for other marginalized Jewish groups, including LGBTQ people, people of color, and people with disabilities, all say. One consultant explains that welcoming leaves a visitor feeling that his or her presence as a guest was truly appreciated. “[I]nclusion is a much deeper form of acceptance… [O]nly genuine inclusion will convince me to remain part of the community. I will stay if I feel I truly belong.”

I was at the United Synagogue biennial earlier this week. They showed a beautiful video created by the United Synagogue and the Ruderman Family Foundation, a leader in disability inclusion. After steps were taken to help an elderly man who had difficulty hearing, he said, “we’re not guests here, we’re part of it.” That’s the difference between welcoming and inclusion.

On the screen is part of a flyer from the Rashi School, a Reform day school in the Boston area, which says: “It’s not enough to say ‘you are welcome here.’ Instead, we say, ‘you belong here.’” That’s the difference.

Our movement’s resolutions concerning other marginalized groups all set a goal of inclusion: they speak of goals “[T]o integrate fully all Jews into the life of the community regardless of sexual orientation;” “[W]elcoming communities of meaningful inclusion, enabling and encouraging people with disabilities … to participate fully …;” or of “[C]ommitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.”

But the movement’s latest resolution on interfaith marriage commits only says partners from different faith backgrounds “deserve a warm welcome” and appreciation, while also encouraging conversion, “becoming a fully Jewish family.”

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

If we require people to convert in order to feel that they belong, they won’t and we will dwindle. I’m wearing a sticker with a large “72%” – that’s the rate of interfaith marriage among non-Orthodox Jews, and it means that 84% of new households being formed that include at least one non-Orthodox Jew are interfaith households.

How do we enable people who are not Jews to feel that they truly belong in Jewish communities? We need three things: a new understanding of interfaith marriage, and adapted attitudes and policies that support full inclusion.

First, in the traditional view, Judaism is for Jews; what matters is “being” Jewish, part of the Jewish people. Those who identify as Jews are “in;” a partner who is not a Jew is “out” or “other.” We need a new understanding that Judaism is not just for Jews, it is for people who are “doing” Jewish, whether or not they identify as Jews, in a community that consists of other Jewishly-engaged people. This is radical, because it stands the traditional view on its head.

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

Second, inclusion requires an adaptation of underlying attitudes towards the group to be included. That means considering interfaith families as equal to inmarried families, and partners from different faith backgrounds as equal to Jews. Unfortunately, examples of expressions of negative attitudes abound. Expressing a preference that our children marry Jews delivers a message of disapproval to the 72% of them who will intermarry anyway. The Hebrew Union College policy to not admit or ordain intermarried rabbinic students sends a message of disapproval. Feeling disapproved of is not conducive to feeling belonging.

Third, inclusion requires adaptive change in the established system with which the group to be included engages. As a consultant explains: “Modes of worship may need to broaden. Methods of decision-making may need to change. And interaction patterns among members may need to evolve.”

Adaptive change means not just considering, but treating interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds as equal. What leadership roles can partners from different faith backgrounds take? In what rituals can they participate? How will we explain those policies and communicate our invitations to engage?

I received a very negative email from a rabbi a few days ago. He said that boundaries are essential to the survival of our culture; that if partners from different faith traditions can do everything Jews can do, Jewish identity would be meaningless and why would anyone convert; that it’s like citizenship, where aliens have certain rights but can’t vote; and that churches don’t allow everyone to take communion.

Here’s how I responded. Yes, we can maintain boundaries, and apply the citizenship analogy – and we won’t have anyone left to engage in our beautiful culture that we want to survive – remember the 72%/84%. Hopefully people convert because it is existentially important to them to identify with the way that they live, not so that they can exercise certain rights that others can’t. I’m not an expert on communion, but my understanding is that it can only mean affirming the divinity of Jesus; that’s qualitatively different from partners from different faith traditions feeling that they belong, that they are part of the “us” to whom God gave the Torah, and can authentically say a prayer thanking God for doing so.

This New Year, Who Will Be Only Welcomed, Who Fully Included?

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This op-ed originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy and is reprinted with permission.

Two important studies this summer noted the relatively lower Jewish engagement of interfaith couples. Instead of criticizing them or discouraging interfaith marriage, the Cohen Center recommended “strategies to introduce intermarried families to Jewish settings and offer them opportunities to participate.” This evidences a growing consensus, in the liberal if not the traditional Jewish world, on the importance of engaging interfaith families, discussed in ways that do not alienate them.

But consensus is lacking on a gating issue to engagement. The Beyond Welcoming study declares that we have succeeded “in making intermarried families feel welcome.” Even if that is correct, which I question, welcoming by itself, while essential, is insufficient. Advocates for every other marginalized Jewish group, including LGBTQ people, people of color, and people with disabilities, all agree that inclusion – the feeling of belonging – is necessary to support engagement.

Congregational consultant David Brubaker explains the difference:

A hospitable congregation welcomes visitors …, showing [them] that existing members are glad that they’ve come… [T]he visitor leaves feeling that his or her presence was truly appreciated.

Having been welcomed… offers no assurance that a visitor will also be fully included…  [I]nclusion is a much deeper form of acceptance… [O]nly genuine inclusion will convince me to remain part of the community. I will stay if I feel I truly belong.

Just like every other marginalized group, it stands to reason that interfaith couples and in particular partners from different faith backgrounds will not engage unless they are fully included – made to feel that they truly belong – in Jewish families, organizations and communities.

But unlike those other marginalized people, the partners from different faith traditions are by definition not Jewish, and there is no consensus on a commitment to their full inclusion.

Resolutions adopted by the Reform movement provide a telling comparison. The resolutions concerning LGBTQ people, transgender/gender non-conforming people, and people with disabilities recognize the distinction between welcoming and inclusion, and state full inclusion as their goal: “[T]o integrate fully all Jews into the life of the community regardless of sexual orientation,” “[W]elcoming communities of meaningful inclusion, enabling and encouraging people with disabilities and their families to participate fully in Jewish life in a way that promotes a sense of personal belonging for all individuals,” “[C]ommitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.”

But the movement’s resolutions on interfaith marriage to date commit only to welcoming interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds, while also encouraging conversion. Conversion is a wonderful, personal, existential choice, but if full inclusion is essential to engagement, and if we are only willing to fully include those who convert, then far too many interfaith couples will continue to be disengaged.

How can partners from different faith backgrounds be fully included? Inclusion theory posits that inclusion requires an adaptation of underlying attitudes towards those to be included, and adaptive change in the established system with which they engage. As Brubaker explains,

Hospitality requires no adaptation on the part of the congregation. (Friendliness and welcoming, yes, but no deep change.) Inclusion is quite different. When a congregation begins to integrate people from a racial group or socio-economic status different from its own dominant culture, it usually must adapt its way of being to be genuinely inclusive. Modes of worship may need to broaden. Methods of decision-making may need to change. And interaction patterns among members may need to evolve… New ideas will stretch the prevailing doctrines and new energies will stress the existing systems.

The Cohen Center’s We’ll Cross That Bridge study points to the key adaptation that is needed in the case of interfaith families: “In some cases, despite the initial welcome by a congregation, couples felt an undercurrent of disapproval or being treated as outsiders rather than as integral and valued members of the community.” It is the attitude that partners from different faith backgrounds are outsiders rather than members that needs to change.

In the deep-seated traditional view that Judaism is a system for the Jewish people and where what matters is being Jewish, interfaith marriage is wrong, and partners from different faith backgrounds are sub-optimal at best. Radical inclusion – radical because it stands that traditional view on its head – understands Judaism to be a system for the community of those who are engaging in Jewish life – who are doing Jewish – some of whom are Jewish, and some of whom, like the partners from different faith backgrounds, are not.

Radical inclusion requires adaptations in culture and in policies. We need to adapt attitudes such that interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions are thought of as equal to inmarried couples and to Jews. And we need to adapt policies such that they are treated as equals.

Paraphrasing the Religious Institute on LGBTQ inclusion, interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions need to be “made to feel like they are part of the family … full members of the faith community, with full opportunities to participate and equal responsibilities to serve.”

Many say that their organization or community is already sufficiently welcoming, as the Beyond Welcoming study suggests. But as the Religious Institute noted in the context of LGBTQ inclusion, there is “a tendency toward complacency among many congregations once the rainbow banner is unfurled…. [M]any clergy and congregants consider LGBT inclusion a ‘non-issue’ because ‘everyone knows we’re welcoming.’”

If we want more interfaith families to engage in Jewish life and community, we should start this new year with a commitment to start working to fully include them. Because the alternative, as Brubaker concludes, is “inevitable decline. Congregations that refuse to include new people along with their new ways of being will inevitably discover that new people have no desire to affiliate.”

Or, as one disabilities expert recently said, “If even one person feels excluded, disconnected, or isolated, the entire community is diminished. Fostering a sense of belonging is a Jewish imperative.”

Beyond Welcoming? Not So Fast

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(This op-ed originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy and is reprinted with permission. It also appeared on j. The Jewish News of Northern California under the title “Welcome mat for interfaith families needs more unrolling.”)

The Cohen Center at Brandeis has released two extremely important studies. Beyond Welcoming: Engaging Intermarried Couples in Jewish Life, based on a large survey of inmarried and intermarried couples, aims to “identify the critical levers for promoting meaningful Jewish involvement by young intermarried couples.” We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come To It, a qualitative study, addresses the life stages and needs of interfaith couples.

The research confirms that interfaith couples and families, as a group, are less Jewishly engaged than those who are inmarried. Thankfully, there is no hint of criticism of interfaith couples, or of Jews who intermarry, or any recommendation to try to discourage or prevent interfaith marriage. The conclusions of the research are all designed to respond proactively – to identify policy and program initiatives to engage more young intermarried couples.

Len Saxe, writing in the Jerusalem Post, summarizes the research in two points. I wholeheartedly agree with the first, that “Jewish education and community building… should be the response to the challenges posed by intermarriage.” I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendations to use a “more comprehensive, life-span developmental approach;” to develop “effective strategies to introduce intermarried families to [Jewish] settings and offer them opportunities to participate” including “non-religious entry points” and in order to “build the Jewish social capital of children and teens;” to make community building “integral to all programming targeted at young couples;” to take advantage of cross-generational engagement; and to focus on Jewish fathers in interfaith couples.

The recommendations in the We’ll Cross That Bridge study are particularly apt: to focus on building small communities of couples and families, and to offer not only integrated programs but also specialized opportunities where interfaith couples can talk with peers and “discuss and have examples for what their future family might look like.”

But Saxe’s second point, that “we have succeeded in making intermarried families feel welcome,” and the study’s heading that “Barriers to Engagement with Jewish Life Have Been Largely Eliminated,” are premature declarations of victory.

There is much to celebrate in the Beyond Welcoming study’s results. It is great news that “Most Jewish parents were very accepting of their children’s non-Jewish partners, as were most non-Jewish parents of their children’s Jewish partners.” It is great news that “In premarital discussions about what role religion would play in their future household, most Jewish+non-Jewish couples agreed on most issues and did not feel they made a lot of compromises.”

It is also great news that only 3% of interfaith couples “sought out a rabbi or cantor but were unable [to] find one who would agree to officiate.” But it’s not great news that 49% never considered having a Jewish officiant, and another 17% considered it but didn’t contact one. Of course, some of those couples had no interest in having a Jewish officiant. But how many didn’t consider it, or didn’t contact one, because they anticipated rejection?

As the We’ll Cross That Bridge study notes, finding a rabbi to officiate a wedding can serve as an entrée into Jewish community for interfaith couples, and “the experiences surrounding the search… sometimes influenced couples’ opinions of the Jewish community and how welcome they could expect to feel.” Facilitating positive experiences in those searches remains critically important.

Finally, it is also great news that the majority of young intermarried couples felt welcome in the Jewish community. Among interfaith couples, 33% of the Jewish partners and 42% of the partners from different faith backgrounds feel completely welcome in Jewish settings without qualification, compared to 62% of inmarried couples.

But the Beyond Welcoming study itself notes that respondents in interfaith couples who did not feel completely welcome “emphasized their feelings of being ‘other’ and not fitting in.” As one partner from a different faith tradition said, “I feel accepted into [my partner’s Jewish] family, but I am uncertain of how much this brings me into the folds of the Jewish community at large.”

Moreover, the We’ll Cross That Bridge study raises questions about the degree of success in making interfaith couples feel welcome. It recognizes the distinction between feeling welcomed as a guest and included as a member of the group:

In some cases, despite the initial welcome by a congregation, couples felt an undercurrent of disapproval or being treated as outsiders rather than as integral and valued members of the community. Some couples recounted being regularly welcomed when they attended activities at a synagogue but never really progressing to feel like they belonged in the community. Couples were also aware that some liberal denominations were more accepting of intermarried couples….

One of the couples interviewed actually defined feeling welcomed in terms of inclusion – as being “treated very equally as members of the community… that is really, really important to the fact that we feel at home here.” And while many of the couples interviewed “described being warmly welcomed by Jewish institutions,” one expressed being pleasantly surprised, suggesting that some couples still anticipate unwelcoming responses.

Couples who did not feel welcomed expressed several concerns that remain frontier issues in efforts to be inclusive. Some were offended by language that suggested that intermarriage is a “challenge” or that they are a “problem.” One said that while “the leaders of synagogues are great… it’s the people who are affiliated… who are not particularly welcoming.” Others expressed concern that if they decided to include both religions in their home life and identification, they would not be fully accepted. One felt the way the Conservative movement treats interfaith families was a “problem.”

The Beyond Welcoming study’s conclusion, that “the challenge going forward is to create access points that spark curiosity and enthusiasm about Jewish engagement,” is extremely important, and I hope that challenge will attract the extensive philanthropic support it deserves. But that conclusion, standing alone, is incomplete. There is still a great deal of work to be done to create an environment where interfaith couples and families really are welcomed, let alone fully included.

Israel, Intermarriage, Holocaust

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Sadly, there’s nothing new about Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz saying that intermarriage among North American Jews is “like a second Holocaust.”

In 2009 I wrote an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, What Israelis Need To Know About Intermarriage in North America. That was after the MASA “Lost Jews” campaign which implied that all of the 50% of young Jews outside of Israel who intermarried were assimilated and “lost.” I said that “it is critical for Israelis to know that intermarriage does not necessarily lead to loss of Jewish identity and affiliation; that many interfaith couples and families are engaging in Jewish life; and that intermarriage has the potential to increase support for Israel in America.”

But nothing really changed. In 2018, the new chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel referred to intermarriage as a “plague” and Israeli politicians condemned the celebrity wedding of a Jewish actor and an Israeli Arab news anchor as a “disgrace.” Earlier this year a right-wing Israeli group put up a billboard outside a shopping center that meant “Reform grandfather equals confused father equals goy grandson.”

Many people are rightly concerned about distancing of Jewish Americans from Israel. Comments from Israel’s government officials that denounce interfaith marriage can only increase that distancing, given that more and more Jewish Americans are intermarried themselves, or have relatives who are.

As Zack Beauchamp writes in Vox,

By choosing to marry non-Jews, [Peretz] thinks, American Jews are literally participating in the destruction of their own community.

Most American Jews — especially Reform Jews like me — cannot adequately express how insulting we find that. We see in our synagogues and communities a thriving Jewish life, one proud of the fact that it doesn’t adhere to the cruel and exclusive ideals of Jewishness that emanate from the Chief Rabbinate. Intermarriage can be fraught, to be sure, but a significant and growing percentage of children of intermarriage identify as Jewish. Diversity in Judaism is, in our view, to be celebrated rather than denigrated….

The longer this state of affairs continues, the more Israel doubles down on right-wing political and theological orthodoxy, the more likely its government is to cut itself off from those who have historically been its biggest supporters.

What is new is some of the reaction to Minister Peretz’s comments – and hopefully there will be more. World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder called the comments “counterproductive flame-throwing that drives us apart.” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said they “alienate so many members of our community. This kind of baseless comparison does little other than inflame and offend.” Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation said,

Israel’s government has a moral responsibility to maintain and improve the country’s relationship with diaspora Jews in general, and with the American Jewish community in particular. I call upon all of Israel’s leaders, and especially those in office, to dedicate time and resources to learn more about the American Jewish community, its life and its challenges.

InterfaithFamily launched a Speak Up and Stand Up campaign asking people to sign a pledge to be inclusive and “show the world that the Jewish community opens doors and does not close them.” I hope many people will sign up. And I’d really like to see is more denouncing of Peretz’s comments by those Jewish organizations and leaders who are quick to denounce use of the term “holocaust” to describe anything other than the Holocaust.

A postscript: the Peretz comments spurred Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz to write an extraordinary essay about being welcoming and inclusive of interfaith families. He writes that “Being as inclusive and welcoming as possible ensures that Jewish wisdom has its best chance of being a transformative moral and spiritual vehicle in a family’s life.” And he continues, with comments aimed at those who “can’t fully agree to religious inclusion,” that “we must, at the very least, collectively affirm our ethical opposition to shaming and ostracizing.” If Israelis leaders ever seriously want to better understand North American Jewish life, Rabbi Yanklowitz would perhaps be an ideal instructor, coming as he does from an Orthodox perspective.

Having It Both Ways?

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Steven Bayme, the national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at AJC, recently asked: “Jewish and Christian: Can One Have It Both Ways?” Writing about David Brooks, who describes himself as both a Jew and a Christian, Bayme says that identifying as both Jewish and Christian, or raising children to identify as both Jewish and Christian, challenges Jewish survivalism and continuity.

As I explain in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, if asked, I would advise interfaith couples to choose one religious identification for their children, while honoring and exposing the children to the other faith tradition in the family if they desire to do so. While acknowledging reasonable contrary arguments – especially those of Susan Katz Miller, who is getting a lot of favorable comment for her new book, The Interfaith Family Journal, I conclude that it is best to ground children in one religious identity, that being both risks forcing uncomfortable choices between parents later on, and that there are theological incompatibilities in being both.

But I hasten to add that my advice doesn’t matter to those interfaith couples who want to raise their children as “both,” and that their participation in Jewish life and community should be encouraged, not barred, because more people “doing Jewish” is valuable in itself, and may result in more Jewish identification, leading to more engagement, as well. It’s presumptuous for Bayme to conclude that “failure to chose one faith exclusively is a prescription for theological blandness.”

In the old debate over interfaith marriage I invariably disagreed with Bayme’s views. He continues to express a desire for an ethnic-based, socially exclusivist Judaism as well as criticism of interfaith marriage. He says that “historically, Jews have known what they were not… Christianity constituted the ultimate boundary.” But contemporary Jews will be attracted to Jewish life because of its intrinsic value, not because of what it is not. Bayme refers favorably to “a distinctive Jewish people” and says that “transmitting Jewish identification to future generations requires an unambiguous Jewish identity.” These formulations fail to come to grips with the realities of how interfaith families engage Jewishly today, and are themselves detrimental to Jewish survivalism and continuity.

In Radical Inclusion I argue that instead of a Judaism that is for the Jewish “people” only, where what matters is “being” Jewish, where Jews are “in” and “others” are “out,” we need a Judaism that is for the “community” of those who are “doing Jewish” – including partners from different faith traditions  who are not Jewish themselves. In such a radically inclusive Jewish community, more interfaith families will chose to identify their families and children as Jewish, while finding meaning and learning much from Christian and other faith traditions.

Moving from Welcoming and Hospitality, to Inclusion

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When asked in a recent interview what’s new and different about my arguments in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I pointed to my emphasis on the need to adapt the fundamental attitudes and underlying philosophies Jews have about interfaith marriage.

I’d like to expand on that answer. There is a progression from the essential, but by themselves insufficient, stages of welcoming and hospitality, to inclusion, as leaders in the fields of LGBTQ, people of color and people with disabilities inclusion, both in and outside of the Jewish world, have explained. Inclusion requires an examination and adaptation of underlying attitudes towards those to be included, and adaptive change in both those to be included and the established system with which they engage.

The best explanation I’ve seen of this progression is by David Brubaker of Congregational Consulting Group, Beyond Hospitality to Inclusion. What Brubaker says about congregations is equally applicable to families, other organizations and communities:

A hospitable congregation welcomes visitors in formal and informal ways, showing visitors that existing members are glad that they’ve come. Handshakes are offered and introductions made, and (when the hospitality is genuine) the visitor leaves feeling that his or her presence was truly appreciated.

…. [G]enuine inclusion is something else altogether. Having been welcomed into a congregation offers no assurance that a visitor will also be fully included. While hospitality is generally extended to visitors, inclusion is a much deeper form of acceptance. Warm hospitality may entice me to give the congregation a second visit. But only genuine inclusion will convince me to remain part of the community. I will stay if I feel I truly belong. (emphasis added) … We are quick to welcome but slow to include.

Hospitality requires no adaptation on the part of the congregation. (Friendliness and welcoming, yes, but no deep change.) Inclusion is quite different. When a congregation begins to integrate people from a racial group or socio-economic status different from its own dominant culture, it usually must adapt its way of being to be genuinely inclusive. Modes of worship may need to broaden. Methods of decision-making may need to change. And interaction patterns among members may need to evolve…. New ideas will stretch the prevailing doctrines and new energies will stress the existing systems.

Inclusion is not assimilation. Inclusion is an adaptive process whereby the newcomers adopt many of the ways of the established group, while at the same time the established culture stretches and evolves to reflect the gifts and needs of the newcomers.

The key lesson from Brubaker’s analysis is that genuine inclusion of interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions in Jewish families, organizations and communities requires that they feel that they truly belong – and that requires adaptive change to new ways of being that stretches both sides in the process.

But what is necessary for interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions to feel that they truly belong? Paraphrasing the Religious Institute (in the context of LGBTQ inclusion), interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions need to be “made to feel like they are part of the family. That is the goal of full inclusion – to make [them] full members of the faith community, with full opportunities to participate and equal responsibilities to serve.”

That is consistent with how I describe radical inclusion: adapting attitudes such that interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions are regarded and treated as equal to inmarried couples and Jews. Similarly, in the context of disabilities inclusion, the Ruderman Foundation seeks “to raise awareness of disability inclusion and impact widespread social attitudes toward people with disabilities.” Ruderman aims to shift views of disability from a matter of charity, to a matter of civil rights; radical inclusion aims to shift views of interfaith couples and partners from sub-optimal to equal.

One essential step in making people feel they belong is talking about them. Paraphrasing Be’chol Lashon, a leader in the field of Jews of Color inclusion, “Jews … tend to avoid talking about interfaith marriage. Interfaith marriage remains the proverbial ‘elephant in the room,’ miring Jewish organizations in institutional inertia.” Again paraphrasing the Religious Institute, “Turning welcome into inclusion is an ongoing commitment to recognize the lives and experiences of interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions. Deliberate action and vocal advocacy – ACTING. OUT. LOUD. – mark the difference between welcome and full inclusion.” In Radical Inclusion I address many of the adaptive changes in policies and programs that will follow once new inclusive attitudes are adopted.

I often hear people say that their organization or their movement is already sufficiently welcoming of interfaith families. But as the Religious Institute noted in the context of LGBTQ inclusion, there is “a tendency toward complacency among many congregations once the rainbow banner is unfurled…. [M]any clergy and congregants consider LGBT inclusion a ‘non-issue’ because ‘everyone knows we’re welcoming.’”

Brubaker concludes that “while hospitality is important and wonderful, genuine inclusion is foundational to congregational vitality. No congregation can grow without being both hospitable and inclusive…. [T]he alternative to genuine inclusion is inevitable decline. Congregations that refuse to include new people along with their new ways of being (emphasis in original) will inevitably discover that new people have no desire to affiliate.” That’s what’s new about radical inclusion, and why it is so important.

The Lesson of Passover: The Jewish holiday reminds us to love and embrace the stranger

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This essay originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is reprinted with permission.

The enduring legacy of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which started April 19, is an obligation that appears in different formulations in the Hebrew Bible 36 times, more than any other – essentially, “you shall love [the stranger] as yourself, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34)

This and other lessons of Passover, like the importance of teaching children about their family’s traditions, and the obligation to feed the hungry and to help liberate all who are oppressed, are distinctive Jewish expressions of universal values shared by all groups in our larger societies.

Sadly, in our larger societies we too often witness expressions not of love, but of hate for the “other,” in the extreme with the massacres of Jews in Pittsburgh and of Muslims in New Zealand, as well as ongoing discrimination against African-Americans and LGBTQ people. One wonders what can be done to elevate love for the stranger, over hate.

Perhaps lessons can be drawn from the Jewish community’s evolving response to interfaith marriage, a phenomenon that has challenged the fundamental Jewish sensibility to love the stranger, with interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions often made to feel excluded from the Jewish group and sub-optimal.

All groups have boundaries that define who the people in the group are and what they do. Historically, the Jewish group consisted of Jews, who followed Jewish rituals, customs and traditions. People who were not Jews, unless they converted, were not permitted to engage in Jewish traditions – or did not want to.

The dramatic rise of interfaith marriage changes all of this; the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans reported that between 2000 and 2013, 72% of non-Orthodox Jews who married, chose to love a partner from a different faith background. Now there are many people from different faith traditions, partnered with Jews, who want to engage in Jewish life. Indeed, the future of liberal Jewish rituals, customs and traditions depends on more of these people who are not Jews, doing Jewish.

Traditionally, the Jewish communal response was to disapprove of, discourage, and try to prevent interfaith marriage; if that failed, conversion to Judaism was the desired “solution” to the “problem,” with the partners shedding their status as strangers.

Over time, many Jews and Jewish organizations came to understand that if they wanted to see more people engaged in Jewish life and community, they needed to welcome interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions. But negative attitudes persist, with interfaith marriage still regarded as wrong, and partners from different faith traditions as undesirable. The same Pew study found that only 54% of interfaith couples attended Passover seders, compared to 91% of Jewish-Jewish couples.

In Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I argue that engaging interfaith families Jewishly requires inclusion, which goes beyond welcoming. Attitudes that disfavor interfaith marriage and policies that restrict partners from different faith traditions from full participation in Jewish life are not inclusive. If partners from different faith traditions are regarded as and made to feel “other” and excluded, they will be disinclined to engage in Jewish traditions. If they are regarded as “part of” and made to feel included, they will. Loving the stranger, in the context of interfaith marriage, means embracing both members of interfaith couples as members of the Jewish group, equal to inmarried couples and Jews.

This is radical, because it stands the traditional understanding that what matters is being Jewish, as opposed to doing Jewish, on its head. It challenges the deeply-held preference of many Jews that their children marry other Jews. But a boundaried Judaism for Jews only is alienating to the vast majority of liberal Jews who do intermarry, to their partners, and to their families. Radical inclusion is the next, necessary step in the adaptation of the Jewish communal response to interfaith marriage from the negative to the positive, aligning with the core value of loving the stranger.

What lessons might be drawn to other examples of marginalization? As I write in Radical Inclusion, behaviors flow from fundamental attitudes. Adopting “love the stranger as yourself” as a primary attitude is a necessary first step.

It is inconceivable that people for whom loving the stranger is a primary value would express or engage in discrimination based on the religion, race, or sexual orientation of others. A Methodist minister who described herself as queer was recently quoted as saying, about the current split in the denomination over LGBTQ acceptance, “it’s very hard to be in a relationship with people who say you are incompatible with Scripture.” Extremist religious views cannot be viable where loving the stranger is primary.

Ultimately, to see more people more engaged in Jewish life and community, the Jewish communal response to interfaith marriage has had to evolve from a position of enforcing boundaries that keep those others out, towards radical inclusion that regards them as equal.  If that response continues to evolve, Jews may see closer to 90% of interfaith couples attending Passover seders in the future. Similarly, to see all people have opportunities to flourish in just societies, any nation or group needs to evolve, from negative attitudes and policies that marginalize others, towards radically inclusive attitudes and policies that regard them as equal. This radical inclusion is consistent with love for the stranger, Passover’s enduring legacy for everyone.