Year-end Round-up

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It’s been busy since Thanksgiving — here’s a round-up of intermarriage news at the end of 2018.

What Christmas Means to Interfaith Families

The Forward today published my essay, “Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas.” I’m always happy to appear in the Forward. But writers don’t get to pick titles, and the point of my essay was more a plea for Jews and Jewish leaders to understand what celebrating Christmas means to interfaith families. Instead of extending “happy holiday” wishes to families to whom Christmas is a warm family time without religious significance, too many Jews and Jewish leaders are still worried that “unambiguously Jewish families” won’t result. As I concluded in the essay, “Successfully encouraging interfaith families to engage in Jewish life necessitates that we overcome any lingering discomfort with interfaith families celebrating Christmas. It’s okay to say ‘happy holidays’ to them this week.”

Conservative Movement News

In a potentially very important development, a Richmond, Virginia Conservative synagogue Board has voted to allow its clergy to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples “when the movement formally allows its rabbis to do so.” The Forward’s Ari Feldman calls this “symbolic” but “an unprecedented measure of support for permitting intermarriage within the movement.” Rabbi Michael Knopf explains that his position on interfaith officiation changed. He says the Torah’s prohibition against marrying people from seven specified nations “should be reinterpreted to allow for interfaith officiation when it can ‘be reasonably presumed that the Jewish partner will remain Jewishly committed. Not everyone who marries outside the faith is a flight risk.’” With respect to the argument that intermarriage leads to less Jewish involvement, he says, “if the Jewish community takes a posture of embrace and inclusion towards the people, it becomes even more likely that they’ll deepen their involvement in Jewish life.” Knopf says his synagogue’s decision “was designed to prod the Conservative movement to ease its stance on interfaith weddings. There needs to be grass roots momentum from the rank-and-file if there’s going to be change on this issue.” It will be very interesting to see if other congregations follow suit.

Interfaith Families Increasingly Jewish

There was an important story the day before Thanksgiving, “Interfaith Families Increasingly Jewish,” by Stewart Ain in the New York Jewish Week. It was prompted by a new study of South Palm Beach County by the Cohen Center at Brandeis, which found that 66% of intermarried families were raising their children Jewish (the community is generally older, and the intermarriage rate is only 16%).

  • Paul Golin said he was struck that “more interfaith households are raising their kids with a Jewish identity than are not — which is the exact opposite of what we were told was going to happen with the increasing rate of intermarriage.”
  • Tobin Belzer said that the “focus of the next generation of scholars will be to look qualitatively at what it [being Jewish] means.” Instead of being cut off, she said, “there are more interesting avenues for exploring Jewish identity than ever before, and many of them are more inclusive than in previous generations.”
  • Ted Sasson said “the driver of the change is that millennial children are more likely to receive a Jewish education and other forms of Jewish socialization than other generations … are more likely to attend a Jewish summer camp and Hebrew school and have a bar or bat mitzvah than adults born in the 1960s and 1970s.” But he cautioned against resting on our laurels: “My own view is that the Jewish community invested a lot in outreach and engagement and that it would be wise to double down on that investment.”

Reform Movement Developments

The URJ announced that it will launch a pilot program in 2019 of its Wedding Officiation Network that will “connect couples with Reform rabbis and cantors in their communities to perform wedding ceremonies and lay the foundation for new relationships between young couples and their local congregations or Jewish community.” The URJ is also changing the way it delivers its Introduction to Judaism and A Taste of Judaism courses, away from in-person offerings at local congregations with local URJ staff in a limited number of local communities, to offering centralized support for all of its congregations, with curriculum and marketing resources and online offerings.

Mnookin Book

A new book, The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World, by Robert Mnookin, a Harvard Law School professor, has received a lot of coverage, including an interview by Judy Bolton-Fasman in jewishboston.com, and reviews in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and the San Diego Jewish World. I’ll have more to say about the book later. I liked what Donald H. Harrison, editor of the San Diego paper, had to say:

This is a time when considerably more than 50 percent of American Jews are marrying non-Jewish partners, prompting some to believe that whereas the non-Jewish world never could annihilate us with its hate, its love, on the other hand, may so diminish our numbers that American Judaism may someday vanish.  Mnookin does not subscribe to this point of view, and neither do I. The Jewish people have many values – among them, love of education, belief in doing acts of kindness, adherence to the idea that we can personally better ourselves and our world – that are appealing to people of other faiths.  I know many intermarried couples who, accordingly, are raising their children as Jews.  I believe if the Jewish people consistently welcome intermarriage, our ranks will grow rather than diminish.

Young Adults

People say young people look at potential partners from different traditions as equals, and aren’t concerned with interfaith dating. But in JSwipe, Parental Pressure, and Lapsed Catholic Girlfriends: How Young Jews are Dating Today, Sophie Hurwitz, a Wellesley College sophomore writing for New Voices, says, “For many millennial Jews, parental pressure still looms large over their romantic lives. The fears surrounding interfaith marriage that permeate the Jewish community, alongside an idea that dating Jewish is ‘just easier,’ prompts many parents to urge their children to exclusively date other Jews.” The story is based on a handful of interviews, but it is illuminating about the young adult perspective.

Peter Feld, responding to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announcing that she had Sephardic ancestry, takes a much different view about young adults’ attitudes. He says:

American Jewish life is witnessing a transformation. A new perspective, informed by intersectionality, inclusion and other left values, is replacing the old one marked by matrilineal heritage and religious ritual. On topics ranging from who is a Jew to where to stand on Israel to what policies domestically Jews should support, young American Jews are leading a shift in identity that’s influencing the community as a whole.

The rejection of “concrete identity” in favor of inclusive values and respect for complex origin stories contrasts sharply to the traditional fear of assimilation, which was posed as a constant threat in 20th century Jewish life. Jewish parents and clergy railed against it, organizing youth groups and summer camps to ward it off.

But now, in the relentlessly diverse world of Millennials and Gen Z, this fixation seems hopelessly archaic…. [A] new generation … is [p]rimed to accept how a person sees their own identity instead of acting as gatekeepers.

Responding to Israeli minister Naftali Bennet’s blaming alienation from Israel on assimilation, Feld says,

The likes of Naftali Bennett who wish to connect with American Jews should take note that we respond better to appeals to our core values, and to an inclusive definition of Jewishness, than to fearmongering about assimilation.

More Hanukkah and Christmas

I was surprised to find this wonderful comment in an article by an Israeli about Jewish law surrounding lighting and displaying the menorah:

How many times do we choose to exclude others in our prayer groups, or our Jewish lives because we don’t consider them to be authentically Jewish? There are so many who have joined the Jewish community who are sincere and devoted but who are consistently rejected or viewed with suspicion by some, because we have not yet found a way to see them as valid, as worthy of being “one of us.”

I also loved this comment about the meaning of the word “Hanukkah”:

The essence of the word Hanukkah — a dedication — is the ability of Judaism to continue. And historically, continuity has meant three elements: remembrance, education and resistance. These elements seem especially resonant this year, when history, knowledge, and the ability of the individual and society to stand up are all under attack.

Jordana Horn criticized Ivanka Trump for an Instagram post showing one of her children “looking awed at the magnificent Christmas décor” at the White House, wishing she had posted a picture of her family being Jewish.

In Hanukkah Is Not Christmas. This Year, Let’s Embrace That, another effort to define “Jewish” along traditional lines, Ben Shapiro makes the outlandish claim that “failure to see Hanukkah for what it truly is means that our children will be far more likely to abandon Judaism than to embrace it.” He says what it truly means is “the requirement for a fulsome Jewish lifestyle that infuses our entire being, that motivates us all year, that gives us something to live and die for.” “This authentic view of Hanukkah enables Jews to see Christmas in a different light: not as a competing holiday, but as a ritual complete with aesthetic beauty but lacking any Jewish spiritual relevance.” “If we fail to commit to Judaism more broadly but think that a few presents and some over-oiled hash browns will keep our kids Jewish, we’ve missed the message of Hanukkah entirely.”

The URJ offered a nice article with advice for interfaith couples on talking about and making decisions about celebrating the December holidays (and another about grandparenting interfaith grandchildren).  A secular paper in Arizona had a long article about how interfaith couples celebrate.

Recognition

There’s been a flap in Australia, where an Orthodox day school refused admission to the child of one of its graduates and his wife, who converted to Judaism but not under Orthodox auspices. Nine Orthodox rabbis said, “The Torah is eternal and unchanging. It has an inbuilt system that deals with new situations and modern innovations, but the very definition of Jewish identity is not subject to change.”

Suggested Corrections

In a recent piece expressing concern over declining numbers of liberal Jews, Rabbi John Rosove said we need to “reverse the loss of 75% of the children of intermarriages who do not identify as Jews.” Actually, 59% of young adult children of intermarriages identify as Jews.

In a review of Samira Mehta’s Beyond Chrismukkah, How Christian-Jewish Intermarriage Became Normal, Emily Soloff says “By the 1980s, talk about preventing intermarriage or encouraging conversion of one spouse largely disappeared, including from the agenda of my own agency, the American Jewish Committee.” That’s not accurate – the AJC was active in promoting statements about the Jewish future in 1991 and 1996 that took a very dim view of intermarriage, and active in 2000 in the Jewish Inmarriage Initiative.

Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas

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This essay was originally published in the Forward.

This month, many interfaith families are celebrating Christmas.

Unfortunately, there won’t be many expressions of “Happy Holidays” coming from the Jewish world.

Recently, Gil Troy described the very existence of intermarriage as “the great unspoken yet perennial source of anguish haunting the Jewish world…American Jewry’s great divider,” and said that “no Jewish community could ever survive a 70% intermarriage rate.” A Canadian rabbi described intermarriage as “an internal threat to the Jewish community.”

Some scholars even find interfaith celebrations particularly threatening. In a recently-published volume, Sylvia Barack Fishman wrote about the importance of “unambiguously Jewish households” and questioned what “raising Jewish children” means to intermarried couples. This was a continuation of her earlier assertion, in Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage, that interfaith families who “incorporate Christian holiday festivities” into their lives fail to transmit Jewish identity to their children.

Fishman says this is the case even when the families interpret these festivities as not having religious significance to them.

But when considering the significance of holiday celebrations, isn’t it essential to understand what the festivities mean for those doing the actual celebrating?

Holidays, of course, have multiple meanings, and most interfaith families view their Christmas celebrations very differently than Fishman does. To most interfaith families who celebrate Christmas, these celebrations are secular celebrations of their heritage. They are not religious or “anti-Jewish” ones and are an important part of their interfaith identities.

*

Earlier this month, Michael David Lucas argued that it is hypocritical for liberal Jews to celebrate Hanukkah, which he defined as a celebration of “religious fundamentalism and violence.” But he himself ended up choosing to celebrate it for “the possibility of light in dark times, the importance of even the smallest miracles,” and he might as well have chosen to celebrate it for the value of religious freedom.

Like Hanukkah, Christmas is susceptible to multiple meanings. While a religious Christmas centers around celebrating the birth of the divine Jesus, that’s not what the celebrations mean to virtually all of the interfaith families who partake.

InterfaithFamily has conducted ten years’ of December holiday surveys which found that, of interfaith families raising their children as Jews, about half had Christmas trees in their own homes and virtually all said their Christmas celebrations were not religious in nature or confusing to their children.

The important 2016 Millennial Children of Intermarriage study confirmed what InterfaithFamily’s surveys have shown: “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage”; they recall holiday celebrations as “desacralized” family events without religious content, special as occasions for the gathering of extended family; “some indicated that celebration of major Christian holidays felt much more like an American tradition than tied to religion.”

A Jewish educator whose child attended a Jewish day school once wrote for InterfaithFamily that a Christmas tree is not “outright Christian,” a statement about the holiday’s meaning that has stayed with me ever since.

She had a tree in her home because her husband “wanted our boys to appreciate the traditions from both sides of the family without necessarily identifying with anything outright Christian…As we see it, our job is to make our family’s Jewish identity so natural, so much a part of us, that it’s not threatened by the presence of a Grand Fir in our living room for one month out of the year.”

In my forthcoming book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I outline three invitations that can be extended to interfaith families, which are relevant year round but especially poignant this time of year.

The first is to engage in Jewish traditions— including Jewish holidays — because they teach compelling values and can serve as a framework to help people live lives of meaning and to raise caring children. Celebrating Hanukkah as a symbol of light, miracles and religious freedom is a prime example.

But when interfaith families are involved, we also have to address Christmas. In 2011, an argument comparable to Mr. Lucas’s was made by two different writers, who argued that interfaith families who celebrate Hanukkah should not also celebrate Christmas, because the meaning of Hanukkah is to honor Jews who resisted practicing any religion other than Judaism.

In a post on InterfaithFamily’s blog, one writer responded:

“I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism…. The idea that my childhood—being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father—somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child. Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community — which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.”

The antipathy that a decreasing but significant number of Jews still have for Christmas attributes a particular, religious meaning to the holiday and expresses a desire to hold tight to traditional behaviors without modification. But at this point, half or more of young Jewish adults have one Jewish parent, and almost all of them grew up celebrating Christmas similar to the way they celebrate Thanksgiving: As a secular celebration of family and food.

When Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, she was asked at her confirmation hearing where she was on Christmas Day. She joked, “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

It was funny, but we are way past the time when all Jews are at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. Probably half or more are having Christmas dinner with their relatives who aren’t Jewish. We shouldn’t decry that fact, or shy away from acknowledging it, or ascribe a meaning to it that the participants don’t share.

Successfully encouraging interfaith families to engage in Jewish life necessitates that we overcome any lingering discomfort with interfaith families celebrating Christmas. It’s okay to say “happy holidays” to them this week.

Let’s Talk About Ahavat Ger, Relating to the Other

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Reprinted with permission from eJewishPhilanthropy

Over the past two years, I have increasingly felt that the Jewish community, in addition of course to addressing pressing external issues, needs to also focus inwardly on engaging more interfaith families, something that is essential if liberal Judaism is to thrive in the future. Engaging interfaith families should be seen as an expression of the cardinal Jewish sensibility of ahavat ger, usually interpreted as “welcoming the stranger.”

Welcoming the stranger doesn’t mean eliminating distinctive identities, an issue of concern to many Jews. Recently, Daniel Drezner wrote in the Washington Post that not all “forms of identity are defined in the exclusion of the other”; the root of community can come “not from exclusion but from a shared sense of meaning.” “American,” for example, is an identity based on a sense of meaning shared by Jews and people of all religions, of all races, with different sexual preferences and abilities – and not in conflict with those identities.

The concept of defining community not by exclusion of the other but by shared meaning is a helpful framework for understanding the obstacles as well as the opportunities for engaging interfaith families.

Much of the Jewish response to intermarriage has been not to welcome the stranger, but to exclude as “other” partners from different faith traditions, and the children of interfaith couples. I think of obstacles to engagement such as the ongoing controversy in the Conservative movement over officiation for interfaith couples; statements from Israel describing intermarriage as a “plague”; a recent renewed suggestion that interfaith families celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas amounts to religious syncretism; and another recent renewed suggestion that it’s possible to encourage endogamy without alienating people who are intermarrying.

But like “American,” we could define “member of the Jewish community” as including both people who identify as Jews, as well as their partners from different faith traditions who engage in Jewish life with them, thereby demonstrating a shared sense of meaning, without identifying as Jews themselves. Failing to do so is a recipe for loss and diminishment.

Consider the potential for growth and enrichment expressed in these two stories of partners from different faith traditions in response to the Pittsburgh tragedy:

  • Robyn Martin, an African-American Catholic woman, who with her Jewish wife is keeping a Jewish home and raising a Jewish son, felt fiercely protective “of my Jewish family and of my entire Jewish community.”
  • Cindy Skrzycki, the Catholic wife of David Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, when asked her reaction as a Catholic, said “I don’t think I viewed this as a Catholic. I have been deeply marinated in Judaism… I love both traditions. … Judaism has been a central theme in our family.”

Here are two partners from different faith traditions who have been embraced by Jewish communities and feel a shared sense of meaning with members of those communities – “marinated in Judaism” without identifying as Jewish themselves – and who are raising or raised Jewish children (one of Skrzycki’s daughters is in rabbinical school).

What does it mean to include the other in a community based on a shared sense of meaning? It means more than welcoming the stranger, politely inviting observation and limited participation in the community’s activities. I believe that effectively engaging interfaith families requires extending the concept of ahavat ger to a position of radical inclusion of the other.

Radical inclusion means thinking of and treating interfaith couples as fully equal to inmarried couples, and partners from different faith backgrounds and the children of interfaith couples as fully equal to Jews. That is “radical” because it stands on their head traditional tribal and insular Jewish attitudes that privilege Jews and inmarriage and regard partners from different faith traditions and intermarriage as other and sub-optimal.

Radical inclusion means adopting policies flowing from inclusive attitudes, in areas including wedding officiation, recognition of patrilineal Jews, ritual participation and the like, that allow the full participation of interfaith families in Jewish life and community, in contrast to traditional policies that restrict full participation to Jews only.

Rabbi Noa Kushner recently referred to “the Jews and those of us who do Jewish with us.” Mark Sokoll, executive director of the JCC in Boston, recently said “The idea of community in Jewish tradition is defined by expansive inclusivity, embracing every voice in the chorus for the music to truly rise all the way to the Divine.” (emphasis in original) We need to see many more of these kinds of explicit statements that reflect radically inclusive attitudes.

Jewish leaders are not explicitly addressing the need to engage interfaith families, or how to do so, nearly enough. But we need to talk about it. That is the motivation for the launch of the new Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, which will engage in advocacy writing and speaking in favor of radically inclusive attitudes and policies, as well as programmatic efforts designed to engage interfaith families. The Center will partner with other organizations, initially with InterfaithFamily, and build a broad-based alliance of progressive Jewish leaders to join in designing and implementing the advocacy efforts and promoting radical inclusion. To explore participating in these efforts, please Connect with the Center.

A New Book and a New Center

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I am very pleased to announce that I have written a book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, that will be published on January 15, 2019 by the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, a new non-profit I am in the process of launching to promote inclusive attitudes, policies and programs that will engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

Part memoir and history of the Jewish community’s debate over intermarriage, part manifesto, the book is for everyone interested in seeing more interfaith families becoming more engaged in Jewish life and community, and particularly for Jewish lay and professional leaders. It describes three invitations that can be extended to interfaith couples to help them live lives of meaning, raise grounded children, and fulfill their needs for spiritual expression and community, and three high-level roadmaps for what Jews, Jewish leaders and Jewish organizations can do to facilitate their Jewish engagement:

  • adopt radically inclusive attitudes towards interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions, treating them as equal to inmarried couples and Jews;
  • adopt radically inclusive policies that allow full participation by interfaith families; and
  • implement a massive, concerted programmatic response designed to engage interfaith families.

These attitudes and policies are “radical” because they stand on their head traditional tribal and insular Jewish attitudes that privilege Jews and inmarriage and regard partners from different faith traditions and intermarriage as sub-optimal, with resulting policies that restrict full participation in Jewish life and community to Jews only, and lack of support for programmatic efforts designed to engage them.

I got the idea for the Center from Ron Wolfson, who wrote an important book about and actively promotes the concept of Relational Judaism. I saw a flyer that referred to the Center for Relational Judaism, and Ron explained that his Center was a way to establish an organizational platform for his ideas, so that it wasn’t just “Ron Wolfson says,” but rather “the Center for Relational Judaism says,” and also a way to attract “disciples” who would themselves promote those ideas and carry on his work. The idea apparently worked: the second book, The Handbook for Relational Judaism, has two co-authors who are now actively promoting that approach.

The proverbial light-bulb went off – I got the idea to have the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism as an organizational platform, bigger than just me, and a way to attract people who will pick up and carry on with promoting a radically inclusive approach, and take it in directions not yet determined.

The mission of the new Center is to advocate for radically inclusive attitudes and policies, as well as programmatic efforts designed to engage interfaith families. The Center will engage in advocacy writing and speaking, spurred at the outset by publication of the Radical Inclusion book, and build an alliance of Jewish leaders to participate in those efforts. No other organization is engaging in this kind of advocacy, which I think is sorely needed; Jewish leaders are not explicitly addressing the need to engage interfaith families, or how to do so.

The Center’s activities are meant to be complimentary to and not competitive with or duplicative of InterfaithFamily. I’m very pleased that IFF is the Center’s first organizational partner.

The Center’s application for tax-exempt status is pending. A first step in building the alliance will be the creation of an Advisory Board, which will be chaired by Rabbi Mayer Selekman, a pioneer in interfaith family engagement efforts who is one of the Center’s founding Board members.

Please Connect With The Center if you’d like to know more or to be involved in the Center’s work.

New Strategic Plan for InterfaithFamily

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I was pleased to see Jodi Bromberg’s public announcement of InterfaithFamily’s new strategic plan in eJewishPhilanthropy, It’s a New Year, and a New InterfaithFamily. Congratulations to Jodi Bromberg and the Board and staff of IFF on reaching this milestone. I have a unique perspective to offer, as the founder of the organization, now retired from it.

It clearly was the right time to take a hard look at IFF’s activities and to “focus efforts to scale them for maximum effect,” as Jodi writes. I think it makes great sense to focus on new interfaith couples and on interfaith families with young children, because those are the most critical stages at which interfaith couples make decisions about Jewish engagement, and because focus clearly is a good thing.

Providing information on the Internet so it was available 24/7 was the first thing IFF ever did seventeen years ago; we updated the website several times but as things change so fast in that arena, it makes great sense to rebuild the digital strategy now to ensure that interfaith families do get what they are looking for, when they are looking.

The Jewish clergy officiation referral service was certainly one of the most important initiatives IFF ever created. We always thought that having a positive experience with an officiating rabbi was likely to lead to future Jewish engagement, something confirmed much later by the Cohen Center Under the Chuppah study. We thought about trying to strengthen the relationships that couples seeking a  referral developed with the rabbis on our list, but didn’t really implement that effort; I’m glad to see the attention given to that in the strategic plan.

I was very proud to build the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, with a full-time rabbi and support staff at its height in seven cities around the country. Each local operation was expensive, though, and one rabbi can only reach and work with a limited number of couples and families. I hope that the addition of a stipended rabbinic fellowship program will expand the number of trained clergy skilled at connecting with interfaith couples and connecting couples with each other, and look forward to a growing cadre of such active fellows. I do hope that the centers of excellence will continue to be offered.

Finally, I’m glad to have seen our early efforts to provide training for Jewish professionals develop into the Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative, and the focus on expanding IFF’s professional development offerings.

I agree with Jodi that it is exciting to see the new strategy start to be implemented – and I hope that IFF will only go from strength to strength!

More Negative, More Positive

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

Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Book

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

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

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

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

Conservative Movement

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

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

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

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

Remembering Rachel Cowan

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The Jewish world lost an extraordinary leader at the end of August when Rabbi Rachel Cowan died. Most of the much-deserved tributes have focused on her contributions in the areas of social justice, Jewish healing, and Jewish spirituality and mindfulness. I would like to highlight something that has received less attention: Rachel Cowan’s leadership in efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly.

As Sandee Brawarsky wrote in the Jewish Week,

Rabbi Cowan successfully channeled her own life challenges and experiences into innovations in Jewish life for others — always a few steps ahead: A Jew by choice, she did outreach and teaching to those considering intermarriage and conversion, and wrote a book with Paul, Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage.

She was indeed a few steps ahead. Mixed Blessings appeared in 1988, not long after Egon Mayer’s Marriage Between Christians and Jews and the Reform movement built up its outreach efforts. Reading Mixed Blessings had a big impact on me. Rachel understood that interfaith couples wanted to understand and learn from the experiences of other couples like them. She understood that telling their stories, as she did in the book, and putting them together with other couples in structured discussion groups, as she did in her outreach work, would satisfy that need – and lead to more interfaith families being more Jewishly engaged.

I was honored and privileged to know Rachel. My first job in the Jewish world was at Jewish Family & Life! starting in 1999 as publisher of its InterfaithFamily.com web magazine. I got to know Rachel as a funder of JFL at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and she was always personally supportive from that point forward (the photo accompanying this post was taken at the 2007 Slingshot conference).

In November 2002 I wrote an essay for the Forward about how the Jewish world should respond to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey’s findings of continued high intermarriage. I referred to Rachel having said that “people can tell when their welcome in genuine.” All of these years later, after much back and forth about how to respond to intermarriage, I can see now that Rachel had zeroed in on the most important thing that is needed to engage interfaith families: attitudes and policies that are radically inclusive of them.

I will always treasure an email exchange I had with Rachel in December 2016. In response to a message about my transitioning from InterfaithFamily’s leadership, Rachel wrote “kol hakavod to you Ed.  You had a dream, and you built it, and it is profoundly influencing contemporary American Jewish life!” I responded with “Thanks, that means a lot, coming from you. I am trying to write a book – when the time comes, I hope you’ll consider writing something for the cover.” Rachel responded with “no doubt I will.” Sadly, my forthcoming book was not far enough along to send to Rachel for comment before her terrible illness progressed too far.

I feel profound loss yet am inspired by how exceptional Rachel was in her many areas of interest and in the great impact she had on so many people both personally and more broadly. She belongs in a rarified league, along with Rabbi Alexander Schindler and Egon Mayer, as a pioneer in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. May her memory always be for a blessing.

Progress on Officiation

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InterfaithFamily has released a report on its survey of rabbis’ practices around officiation and co-officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. The highlights of the report have been covered by JTA and the Forward and follow a recent Forward story on Rabbi Joe Black changing his position on officiation after thirty years as a rabbi. The survey results show that a lot of progress has been made towards helping interfaith couples have a positive experience when they seek to have a rabbi present at their weddings – and that there are frontier issues that continue to challenge how rabbis perform their roles.

For as long as I can remember, the accepted wisdom has been that “about half” of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis would officiate for interfaith couples. The last reported survey, in 1995, said it was 47%; the new survey says it is 85%. (Forty-four percent of the members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association responded to the survey; 23% of the members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.)

And for as long as I can remember, the perception has been that very few or relatively few rabbis would co-officiate at weddings with clergy from other faiths; the last reported survey said it was 13%. There is a lot of ambiguity in what “co-officiation” means; it could mean sharing a service with other clergy, or it could mean being the sole officiant but allowing other clergy to participate; and the big variable seems to be whether the other clergy can make theological references to other religions – which usually means, mention Jesus. In the new survey, 25% said they would co-officiate, and another 20% who said they did not co-officiate said they would permit other clergy to offer a prayer or reading without any theological reference to another religion. In addition, 47% said they would offer a prayer, reading or blessing at a service performed by clergy from another faith.

These figures clearly indicate an opening among rabbis to officiating for interfaith couples. Frontier issues remain that challenge rabbis and may cause discomfort among couples. First, of the rabbis who do officiate, 59% require as a condition of doing so that the couple commit to establish a Jewish home/raise children as Jews. Couples who aren’t “there yet,” who aren’t willing to make that commitment, are likely to have a harder time finding a rabbi to officiate, based on the numbers who are willing to when that is the case. Couples seeking co-officiation, and particular forms of co-officiation, are likely to have a harder time, for the same reason. And couples planning weddings before sundown on Saturday are likely to have a harder time because only 59% will officiate then.

The comments rabbis offered in response to open-ended survey questions were fascinating. Few of the rabbis mentioned Jewish law as a large factor in their decision to officiate or not to officiate. Most of the rabbis mentioned viewing their role as being to facilitate creation of Jewish homes, families and children. One rabbi explained her change of position by saying she realized that her job as a rabbi was “not to make Jewish marriages but to facilitate the creation of Jewish families.”  That is an important distinction that shifts the focus away from halachic requirements for Jewish wedding ceremonies and towards the impact of officiation.

Years ago I visited a Reform rabbi on the North Shore of Chicago who told me that she did not officiate for interfaith couples because of Steven M. Cohen’s research showing that interfaith families were not Jewishly engaged (she has since changed her position). Based on the comments in the new survey, it seems clear to me that rabbis by and large no longer accept that point of view; a number made comments that suggest a serious shift in attitudes about intermarriage.

Thus, many rabbis explained their decision to officiate by referring to their experience with numerous interfaith couples who were creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. One said, “I believe that interfaith families are a strength in our Jewish community. Many non-Jewish spouses are very committed to raising Jewish children. This has been my own life experience and what I see in my community presently. Interfaith couples are not a threat to Judaism.” I thought this comment was particularly powerful:

My reason NOT to officiate had always been, “It is my job description to create and sanctify new Jewish households.” And I believed that only two Jews could produce such a thing. However, real-life showed me something different and, after nearly ten years of turning down interfaith weddings, I announced my change in policy and began officiating under certain circumstances. I delivered a major sermon on the High Holy Days about my change in practice, and it was the first time that I actually received a standing ovation!

The opposition to co-officiation seems to be based primarily on an assumption rabbis make about what the fact that the couple wants co-offication means. One said, “[I]f there is clergy from other faiths co-officiating, my interpretation is that this couple has decided to create a family and build their home (as the chuppah represents) as one that is not a family that is committed to Judaism.” Another said,

I don’t wish to support a view that Judaism is an “option” in the couple’s life among other “co-existing” or “competing” cultural expressions or life paths. While this approach might be the reality for a given couple, affirming that reality doesn’t align with my sense of rabbinic purpose.

Of course it is also entirely possible that couples may want co-officiation because they want to honor the traditions of both of their families and have not decided what they will ultimately do in terms of their home or family or children being Jewish. It seems clear to me that the main reason for the shift towards being more open to officiation is that rabbis have come to believe that rejection pushes interfaith couples away while officiation leads many to create Jewish homes, families and children. But that logic would equally apply to couples seeking co-officiation, who will be pushed away by rejection and drawn in by the rabbi’s participation.

As the survey report says, officiation and co-officiation issues continue to be important to rabbis – 34% said they would be interested in participating in clergy-only conversations led by InterfaithFamily to discuss those topics.

My Thoughts on Steven M. Cohen’s #MeToo Moment

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Steven M. Cohen has been perhaps the most prominent critic of intermarriage. For almost twenty years he has been my ideological nemesis and I have disagreed quite vehemently with the substance of his analysis and interpretation of survey research.

There has been wide publicity of news that Cohen repeatedly sexually harassed numerous women in his field. Some have argued that his work should be re-evaluated or discounted as a result.

I have often felt that Cohen demonstrated a subjective bias against intermarriage. I agree with Jane Eisner that Cohen “and a few other select sociologists evolved from being dispassionate researchers and analysts to advocates for policy solutions.”

I can understand how there may be an invalidating connection between Cohen’s bad conduct and his research conclusions concerning fertility and time of marriage, as some have argued. But I don’t see the possible connection with his research conclusions concerning intermarriage. Cohen’s arguments on intermarriage need to be challenged on their merits, not because of his bad conduct.

Language Shapes Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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