Responding to the Fishman / Cohen / Wertheimer Challenge

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Last Friday Sylvia Barack Fishman, Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer described Michael Chabon’s views on intermarriage as “morally abhorrent.” The JTA published my reply on Monday, ‘Radical inclusion’ of interfaith families is the best response to Michael Chabon.

In their essay, Fishman and her co-authors address several questions to proponents of welcoming and inclusion (I’ve added numbers):

  1. Where would you draw boundaries?
  2. Where do you stand on maintaining some distinctions between Jews and others?
  3. Is Jewish group survival a force for good or for ill, not only for individual Jews but for humanity?
  4. Should we teach the next generation that all Jews —both those born Jewish and converts — are in a kinship relationship with one another as heirs of a unique, rich and valuable cultural heritage?

They end by asking “Which side are you on?” A rabbi I spoke with described that as a challenge to which I offer this explicit response:

  1. We should draw boundaries around the content of Jewish traditions – the cultural richness, intellectual wealth, moral wisdom, warmth of community life, social justice and engagement with Israel that they refer to – but not around who gets to participate in those traditions.
  2. In order to maximize the Jewish engagement of interfaith couples and families, we should not maintain distinctions between intermarried Jews and their partners from different faith backgrounds.
  3. Of course Jewish group survival is a force for good, not only for Jews, but also for their partners from different faith traditions who should be included in the Jewish group, as well as for humanity.
  4. We need to broaden our thinking beyond only born Jews and converts being in kinship relationships and heirs to Jewish tradition. We need to adapt our concept of Jewish “people” to a broader Jewish “community” that includes everyone who is Jewishly engaged – Jews, their partners from different faith backgrounds, and their children – to welcome and include all of those people as heirs to our valuable heritage.

The challenge I would pose is whether Jewish leaders truly want to maximize the Jewish engagement of interfaith families – the Jewish partner, the partner from a different faith background, and most importantly their children – and what steps they are willing to take towards that end.

Intermarriage in the Bible and Rabbinic Tradition

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In April and May 2018, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, President and Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, delivered an important series of three lectures on Intermarriage: Choices and Consequences. (Hadar is “a leader in the field of Jewish education and community building, engaging diverse populations in serious Jewish learning with curiosity, creativity and conviction.”)

If you are seriously interested in learning how intermarriage is discussed in the Bible and in halacha, or Jewish law, I strongly recommend that you take the time to listen to the lectures and review the source sheets that accompany them. If your time is limited, and/or you are most interested in the current practical consequences of the analysis, I recommend that you listen to the lectures in reverse order, starting with the third.

Rabbi Tucker explores what the Torah and halacha, Jewish law, say about intermarriage. Deuteronomy 7:1-4, which some cite as a blanket prohibition, actually forbids intermarriage with seven named tribes in the land of Canaan that the Israelites were about to enter, and further says that those who intermarry will become idolaters, worshipping other Gods. The text raises the question whether the reason for the prohibition is to maintain the Jewishly distinctive ethnic group in the local area, or to prevent idolatry – a question discussed extensively in in the Talmud and medieval commentaries.

Rabbi Tucker articulates the possibility that intermarriage with someone who is not from the named tribes and who is not an idolater might be permissible. The prohibition would be historically contextualized to another time and place. If contemporary Gentiles (the term he uses) are not idolaters, nor agents likely to lead Jews astray, but rather potential powerful allies of Judaism as a system of living who can protect the historically fragile Jewish people and even spread Torah more widely in the world – then potentially intermarriage would not be inconsistent with the halachic tradition.

Rabbi Tucker is quick to add that while this argument can be made, it is tenuous. He says the important question is not whether halacha can embrace something, but why it should or shouldn’t. He considers several models under which intermarriage might be embraced, ultimately concluding, as I understand it, that it should not be.

First, Rabbi Tucker says that tradition insists on predictable and sustainable rules of descent, which he says were patrilineal in the Biblical period and matrilineal in the rabbinic period. I understand him to be saying that if the Jewishness of the children of intermarriage followed the matrilineal rule, then it might be embraced. But he says he never met an advocate of embracing intermarriage who did not also advocate for “ambilineality,” which he says is a standard for Jewishness that is not meaningful and cannot be squared with Biblical or rabbinic thinking about descent.

I hadn’t heard the term “ambilineal” before; I understand it to describe the Reform and Reconstructionist approach that children who are raised as Jews are Jewish whether their mother or father (or both, for that matter) are Jewish. I don’t understand why an ambilineal approach is not meaningful, especially where descent has been patrilineal at times and matrilineal at times.

Rabbi Tucker says a second way to embrace intermarriage is to see it as serving a mission to spread the Torah to the entire world. Rabbi Tucker seems to equate spreading the Torah in this regard as making the mitzvot obligatory on more people – he says the mitzvot could be “a life manual for everyone.” Since in the traditional view, mitzvot are obligatory only on Jews, spreading mitzvot would mean converting Gentiles; and that, Rabbi Tucker says, is inconsistent with tradition, which holds that righteous Gentiles share in the world to come without embracing Judaism, meaning that there is no impetus to convert people to Judaism.

Rabbi Tucker says a third way to embrace intermarriage would be to define Jewishness by religious practice, not ethnic/familial background. In support of this view, Rabbi Tucker cites pieces of rabbinic tradition that suggest that one who does not observe Shabbat is not a Jew. But he rejects this argument because there is no stomach for policing communal boundaries around religious practice.

In a liberal Jewish view, however, spreading the Torah to the world would not mean making the mitzvot obligatory through conversion, and defining Jewishness by religious practice would not involve policing compliance. What if intermarriage leads more unconverted people from different faith backgrounds to live more Jewishly – regarding mitzvot as aspirational, making informed choices about which to consider obligatory on themselves, and engaging in more Jewish rituals and practices – would that be sufficient for the tradition to embrace intermarriage?

In an aside, Rabbi Tucker includes a startling text: I Corinthians 7, in which Paul says that believers married to unbelievers should not divorce them, because the unbeliever partners are sanctified through the believer partners, and their children are holy. Rabbi Tucker explains that Paul was concerned with building a church, not maintaining an ethnic group, and his universal and missionizing approach influenced his view of intermarriage. To him, the believing partner would carry the day and influence the unbeliever towards belief.

Rabbi Tucker says that the discussion about intermarriage is a proxy for a discussion about what Judaism is and ought to be. In the book I am writing and expect to have published in the spring of 2019, I emphasize a distinction between being Jewish and doing Jewish that is critically important in engaging interfaith families Jewishly. I argue that it is more important for a partner from a different faith tradition to do Jewish than to be Jewish, and that that focus will lead to more interfaith families engaging Jewishly, and more people identifying more Jewishly – halachically or otherwise.

Rabbi Tucker draws the same distinction, more elegantly. He says the debate is whether Judaism is a covenant that flows through the blood and genes of the Jewish people that calls and contains us, or a deep reservoir of practices we can call on for meaning. He distinguishes between covenantalists – to whom Judaism is what you inescapably are, and civilizationalists, to whom Judaism is an incredible resource, to be shared as generously and with as few boundaries as possible. He says covenantalists can’t embrace intermarriage, while civilizationalists would be insane or bigoted not to.

Rabbi Tucker acknowledges that most American Jews favor a voluntaristic Judaism, open to all, not claiming superiority to other traditions. They think that building up more Judaism and inviting people to be part of it will do better than maintaining boundaries and keeping definitions clear. They eschew objective essence as a category for defining a Jew, and resist standards on lineage, belief and practice. Rabbi Tucker says this view is viable and might perpetuate Judaism’s texts and values, but is a radical departure with rabbinic understanding of a covenant between God and an eternal, separate, distinctive Jewish people.

But in reviewing relevant sources, Rabbi Tucker includes Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 36a: “You do not decree a decree on the community unless most of the community can uphold it.” He refers to this as “the nuclear option” about any rabbinic decree – a ruling that cannot command adherence ought no longer be enforced. The prohibition against intermarriage at this point is not being upheld by most of the community.

Rabbi Tucker is not optimistic that the traditional covenantalists and the liberal civilizationalists will be able to work together. I think that the liberal community already respects the traditional community, so whether the two can work together depends on whether the traditional community will accept and respect the liberal approach, or reject and disdain it. Where halachic status matters – for example, if a traditional Jew wants to marry a patrilineal Jew – that concern can be addressed through conversion.

Rabbi Tucker’s closing goal as I understand it is to hold to the Torah vision of building models of community that will make the promise that we will be an eternal people a reality. As a civilizationalist who respects the covenantalist position, I would amend that goal by referring to the promise that we will be an eternal people and Judaism an eternal resource. Liberal Judaism’s adoption of a radically inclusive approach, and traditional Judaism’s respect for that approach, is key to building the model of community that will realize that goal. I greatly appreciate that Rabbi Tucker addresses intermarriage with a realistic and respectful tone.

Michael Chabon Didn’t Go Too Far

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Noted author Michael Chabon spoke at the graduation of the Hebrew Union College Los Angeles campus on May 14. The JTA story is titled “Michael Chabon attacks Jewish inmarriage and Israel’s occupation in speech to new rabbis.” Ben Sales writes that Chabon “delivered a diatribe against Jewish inmarriage” and says he “once wanted his children to marry Jews, but now opposes the idea of Jewish endogamy.” He quotes Chabon as saying that “Endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two” and that intermarriage is “the source of all human greatness.” (Chabon actually said that “miscegenation” – the mixing of racial groups – is the source of all human greatness.)

I am probably as liberal as they come about Jews and intermarriage, but I’ve never said that inmarriage is a bad thing. If that is what Chabon said, I think he’s wrong. But I don’t think that’s what he said.

Sales quotes Chabon as saying “Any religion that relies on compulsory endogamy to survive has, in my view, ceased to make the case for its continued validity in the everyday lives of human beings.” I think it’s clear that what Chabon rejects is compulsion as to marriage partners. He doesn’t tell Jews they shouldn’t marry Jews. That would be just as compulsory, and just as misguided, as telling Jews they shouldn’t intermarry.

Chabon did say that he abhors homogeneity, insularity, and exclusion, and favors hybrids, complexity and diversity. But he explains the reason for his preferences is that division and boundaries ultimately can lead to the feeling that “we are not those people over there.” His real issue is that religious traditions have justified or prettified the dirty work of denying humans their humanity.

What he actually says about his hopes for his children are that they marry into the tribe that prizes skepticism, learning, inquiry and openness to new ideas, and enshrines equality before the law and human rights – and he says a fair number of the members of that tribe are likely to be Jews. He says that Judaism has reinvented itself over history by being mutable and flexible, and that could and must happen again.

The key adaptation, Chabon says, is to move outward, opening hearts and minds to those on the other side. In his charge to the HUC graduates, he urges them to knock down walls, find room in the Jewish community for all who want to share in our traditions, expand the protective circle of Jewish teachings around the “other,” and, yes, seize the opportunity to enrich the Jewish cultural genome by the changes that result from increased diversity – i.e., interfaith marriage.

I’d like to think that Michael Chabon is an advocate of the radical inclusion that is the subject of the book I am writing and expect to have published in the spring of 2019. My central thesis is that Jews and Jewish leaders and organizations need to adopt radically inclusive attitudes – treating interfaith couples as equal to Jewish-Jewish couples, and partners from different faith traditions as equal to Jews – and the radically inclusive policies that follow from those attitudes, supporting full and equal participation in Jewish life and community. Radical inclusion is the opposite of the compulsory endogamy Chabon rejects, and opens up to the “other” Jewish practices that offer ongoing validity for their lives.

A video of the speech is available in the JTA story. I encourage you to listen for yourself.

A Letter to the Leaders of Honeymoon Israel

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Dear Avi and Mike,

Congratulations on the great success of Honeymoon Israel described in your recent eJewishPhilanthropy article.  It is exciting to hear that 1,200 couples have gone on trips to Israel, that 700 more are scheduled to go this year, and that

Honeymoon Israel helps couples begin conversations between partners regarding how they will approach starting a Jewish family and to meet other, similar couples from the same city who are engaged in similar journeys and struggles.

[A]fter the trip… [c]ouples are building micro-communities with their Honeymoon Israel cohorts and are involved in book clubs, Hebrew classes, Jewish learning, social groups and more new Mom’s and Dad’s groups that we can count…. [O]ur goal is to co-construct an ecosystem for young Jewish families that is as vibrant as it is diverse.

Honeymoon Israel (HMI) is an outstanding program – may it continue to flourish. I’m concerned, though, that you feel the need to protest that HMI is not an “interfaith couples program” – the title of your article. After all, 70% of your participants are interfaith couples! It’s fantastic that HMI is attracting interfaith couples in proportion to their presence in the community – with the remaining 30% being inmarried couples, and 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying according to the Pew Report.  Many other Jewish programs, including Birthright Israel, realize that interfaith couples are their growth market and would love to have similar results.

But why do you say that you are not especially focused on interfaith couples? Why not affirmatively and even proudly say that Honeymoon Israel is an inclusive Jewish program that attracts predominantly interfaith couples? Why not say, “yes, Honeymoon Israel is an interfaith couples trip to Israel – and an inmarried couples trip to Israel, too?”

There are three premises in your article that deserve further discussion: that interfaith couples don’t consider themselves “interfaith,” that the partners aren’t really very different from each other, and that programs for interfaith couples “ghettoize” them.

You say that “most” of your couples do not refer to themselves as “interfaith” which is a “meaningless” term “to most of them.” If that is accurate, it is a huge change from the recent past. Others have said, as you do, that we need a better term than “interfaith” to describe these couples; I’ve often said that there isn’t a better term, and that most couples understand that it simply means partners coming from two different faith backgrounds.

You say that the couples simply “married another American with a somewhat different background.” That seriously minimizes the issues that different faith backgrounds can generate in the context of the couples’ prospective Jewish engagement.  After all, you acknowledge that Jewish organizations send messages “that belonging requires looking or behaving a certain way.” When HMI welcomes couples “as they are, with no expectation that a part of their lives might have to change or that other people in their lives need to be excluded,” for most couples that is “a new feeling.”

Another article in eJP the same day as yours, about an inclusive day school, makes the same point, when it highlights two interfaith couples who “acknowledged trepidation in their decision-making [about enrolling their children] – Would it be too Jewish? Would the fact that they are interfaith make them uncomfortable? Would they feel as though they belonged?”

And what about recent prominent use of the term “shiksa” – a term that we desperately need to get rid of? In an opinion column for the New York Times, no less, on a “tug of war over American values” between Jared Kusher and Ivanka Trump, on the one hand, and Joshua Kushner and Karlie Kloss, on the other, Maureen Dowd quotes a 2015 piece in the Forward by Margaret Abrams that refers to Kushner’s parents complaining about the  “WASP-worthy girls” and “shiksas” and pressuring them to convert.

You can’t have it both ways – you can’t say interfaith couples have understandably felt excluded by negative messages and at the same time say that interfaith couples don’t have differences and issues because they are interfaith that need to be addressed. So why do you feel the need to say that programs for interfaith couples “ghettoize” them and suggest they are not part of one community? The aim of those programs is in fact to integrate interfaith couples into Jewish life and Jewish communities. It’s great that HMI can be representative, not solely “for” interfaith couples, and still attract so many of them; that doesn’t mean that programs “for” interfaith couples aren’t also badly needed.

The most important news is that the obstacles to interfaith couples’ prospective Jewish engagement can be overcome by truly inclusive programs like Honeymoon Israel. But interfaith couples are going to continue to get exclusionary messages unless Jews and Jewish leaders and organizations are loudly and proudly inclusive of interfaith families.

Your article starts with a funder who told you that they weren’t in the “interfaith space,” and it ends with a reference to “more conservative elements” of the Jewish community being “nervous” about the Jewish community that Honeymoon Israel couples will build. There is a residual distaste for intermarriage that is still present among Jews and Jewish leaders, which continues to be a source of exclusionary messages. And there is a deafening silence among many others who don’t want to talk about or affirmatively intermarriage.

I would encourage you to say that Honeymoon Israel is a program for interfaith couples – as well as for all couples, and that interfaith couples have issues because of their different faith backgrounds that need to and can be addressed by a range of inclusive programmatic efforts to facilitate their engagement.

You are running a great program and I hope it continues to grow,

Ed

Ignorant of Intermarriage? Ignoring Intermarriage?

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I loved Rebecca Ennen’s piece in the Forward, How Can Jewish Leaders Be So Ignorant About Intermarriage?  It’s refreshing to see a 35-year old child of intermarried parents, who works in a Jewish organization and is raising a Jewish child, forcefully explain how Jewish leaders talk about interfaith families “in ways that are frankly ignorant” and call to “hear more from intermarried people and from Jews proud of our mixed backgrounds.” Ennen says the messages from Jewish engagement programs often “are clear and damaging: intermarried families are second-rate, and it’s best to conceal your non-Jewish heritage. What if, instead, we based our ‘welcoming’ programs on the insights of people in and from interfaith families? What if Jews like me were elevated to leadership not despite our families but because of them?” It’s a perspective Jewish leaders would be wise to consider.

I also loved I’ll Take the Wheel, Thanks by Olufemi Sowemimo who talks about falling away from the religion of his upbringing and looking forward to making new traditions with his fiancé, Becky Herring, associate director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta.

Passover and Easter 2018

There were many stories about interfaith families and the overlap of Passover and Easter this year. Samira Mehta, who has written a new book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States, wrote an excellent summary of the issues. Other articles with personal examples include Families celebrating both Passover and Easter this weekend say inclusion is key; Interfaith couples blend Passover and Easter traditions; How To Celebrate Easter As An Interfaith Family; and Communication key to interfaith couples celebrating holidays.

I have an issue with articles in the Jewish media about diversity and inclusion that do not mention interfaith families and partners from different faith traditions specifically. One mild example is an excellent piece by Brad Hirschfield, co-president of Clal. In an essay titled “How To Embrace Diversity at Your Seder,” he asks what we can’t have a Passover seder without, and suggests that “we cannot have a seder without genuinely different types of people at the table.” I would have liked to see interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions explicitly mentioned, but the principle spelled out in the piece clearly applies.

A worse example is 5 Reasons That Passover Is The Festival Of Inclusion. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favor of including people with disabilities in Jewish life and communities, and this is an excellent article to support that kind of inclusion. But it often feels like the inclusion agenda has been hijacked by that cause. Just consider the topic headings in the article: recognition of diversity amongst us; making space for outsiders; we were slaves; differences must be accommodated; and ensuring full participation by all. “If we want to act as a family or a Jewish community, we must practice inclusion all year round.” “Every Jew must have an equal and equally participatory place at the table – independent of any difference that may be perceived.” Couldn’t we say “every Jewishly engaged person” should have an equal and equally participatory place at the table?

More Conservative News

The Conservative movement isn’t ignoring intermarriage, far from it. A great update by Ben Sales for JTA, Conservative Judaism’s leadership turns over. Will intermarriage policy be next?  reports that not only are the heads of the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly stepping down from their positions, but for the first time in years there will be a contested election for vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, with a rabbi considered relatively liberal on intermarriage issues being challenged by one more conservative. (Ari Feldman at the Forward broke the story on the election challenge.) And Rabbi Philip Graubart raises another thoughtful perspective when he questions whether the central concept of covenantal loyalty is removed from “the reality of how American Judaism is lived today.” “Covenant implies a collection of people acting together. But what happens when the great majority aren’t behaving the way we want them to behave? Can there be a covenant without a congregation?”

Intermarriage and Jewish Philanthropy

Jack Wertheimer, who has been very critical of intermarriage, wrote a report on American Jewish philanthropy for the Avi Chai Foundation and a summary for JTA, ‘Engaging’ millennials is all the rage. But is it the best use of Jewish philanthropy? The report is sprinkled with comments expressing concern about intermarriage, including “Given the high rates of intermarriage and assimilation as the generations pass, some of the foundations most committed to contributing to Jewish life turn their backs on Jewish needs.” and “the disinclination of younger Jews to support the large Jewish organizations or in many cases see merit in funding any Jewish causes engenders concern about the future of Jewish giving; so too do high rates of intermarriage, which often lead to alienation from Jewish life.” On the other hand, it mentions funders who prefer to support engagement, including:

Meanwhile, a whole industry had cropped up in response to the massive upsurge of intermarriage. Hoping to draw intermarried families into Jewish life, funders have invested in a range of new programs specially designed to address their perceived needs. Among the new initiatives are free trips to Israel for recently married intermarried couples sponsored by Honeymoon Israel and free Friday evening meals to teach such couples and singles how to welcome the Sabbath (sponsored by OneTable). Others are designed to help intermarried families meet with one another to discuss the challenges they face.

In an important comment on the report, Sandy Cardin, president of the Schusterman Foundation, suggests he’d like to see more discussion of the impact of intermarriage:

[O]ne trend I had hoped Jack would focus on is how big givers are addressing the demographic changes taking place in American Jewish life, especially outside the Orthodox communities. Relatively little appears in his closing recommendations about the extent to which young Jewish adults are marrying and partnering with members of other faith communities (or of no faith community at all). I would be very interested to read his views on both sides of the equation: how does Jack think these demographic shifts will affect large givers in the Jewish community and how does he think major gifts by Jewish philanthropists will affect this fundamental change in American Jewish life?

My Take on the Jewish Man’s Rebellion

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There’s been a media storm over the March 29 Washington Post essay, “I am tired of being a Jewish man’s rebellion,” in which Carey Purcell, a self-described “WASP,” suggests two Jewish men dated her as a “last act of defiance against cultural or familial expectations before finding someone who warranted their parents’ approval.” Roundly criticized for outdated stereotypes bordering on the anti-Semitic (as well, I would add, as anti-WASP), Purcell posted an apology on her website.

I didn’t like Purcell’s essay because I’ve never liked it when people explain why relationships succeed or fail because of abstract considerations. One of the best comments I saw was by Danielle Tcholakian in the Forward: “Compatibility is a weird sort of witchcraft, some sort of strange ephemeral thing that somehow makes you less annoyed by one person’s annoying traits than you are by most other humans.”

Without getting into all of the details of Purcell’s story which have been amply and repeatedly recited, the worst comment I saw was by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in the Forward. She criticizes Purcell’s complaint about the boyfriend breaking up with her by defending “a community’s – and religion’s – desperate attempts to stay afloat over centuries of Diaspora living.” It’s offensive to suggest that interfaith relationships threaten the Jewish community and Judaism’s “staying afloat.”

As Susan Katz Miller was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article as saying: “There is significant statistical evidence for thriving, successful interfaith families in America, and that should be the story, not an unfortunate, somewhat neurotic personal experience.”

The most important response was My Fellow Non-Jewish Women: Stop Blaming The Jews For Your Failed Relationships. It’s too bad the writer felt the need to be anonymous.  She tells how she had a Jewish boyfriend who broke up with her because she was not Jewish. He told her she would never be “accepted by the community;” his parents pressured him and threatened to cut him off financially and were so ashamed that she was kept a secret from their family, and she was told this would continue even if she converted.

Unlike Purcell, however, she doesn’t blame some abstract considerations or generalized phenomenon about Jewish men; she blames her boyfriend’s “immaturity, the unhealthy behaviors he employed and his emotionally manipulative family.” But better yet, she is currently dating a Jewish man who is mature, respectful, communicative and kind:

On Sunday, when he kindly joined me for Easter service, I saw the other couples worshipping together and felt no different. When we attend his extended family’s belated Passover Seder this weekend, we will celebrate the holiday just as so many other couples have the past few days. We will recommit ourselves to our shared values of aiding the oppressed and giving respect to those who paved the way for us.

The attitudes demonstrated by the anonymous writer and her Jewish boyfriend and his family  are the kind of attitudes that will do more than keep the Jewish community and Judaism “afloat” – they’ll enable it to thrive into the future.

Another Community Study

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Last month I blogged about what new community studies in Washington DC and San Francisco had to say about interfaith families. The Cohen Center at Brandeis, which did the Washington DC study, has released a new study of Pittsburgh.

An article in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reports the study’s findings that one-third of all children in Jewish households are in intermarried families, that 33% of children of intermarried families are being raised exclusively Jewish, and that “few intermarried families in the Pittsburgh community ‘feel very much a part of the local Jewish community.’” The study found that 11% of children of intermarried families are being raised Jewish and something else, and the Chronicle article notes that “for intermarried families who are raising their children Jewish in some way, ‘nearly as many are sending their children to Jewish preschool as are inmarried families.’” The study’s principal author, Matthew Boxer, said that “Reaching out to intermarried families may provide a good opportunity for growth…and Pittsburgh should see ‘what else can be done to make them feel welcome.’”

The study was also the subject of a front-page story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which reports that “Intermarriage remains a concern. Of local Jews who are married, engaged or living together, 29 percent are in an interreligious couple. Among young adults, the figure is 40 percent, and that’s among those who are coupled up.” The article reports that Len Saxe, head of the Cohen Center, said that children raised in interreligious marriages in recent years are more likely to grow up claiming a Jewish identity than in the past, when mixed couples felt marginalized. “The Jewish community, particularly the liberal part, said, ‘We’re going to welcome particularly the children.’”

The recent studies, as well as past studies in New York (2011), Boston (2015), and the Pew Report (2013), have a pretty wide variation in what they report about how the children of interfaith families are being raised. That’s a subject I’ll return to soon.

Intermarriage Round-up

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My Google alerts for “interfaith” and “intermarriage” picked up eight interesting items in the last month.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has written what sounds like a great new Haggadah That’s Full of Welcome. Published by Behrman House just in time for Passover, the haggadah is for families “who want to be as welcoming as they can be,” especially “for those on the periphery, for those who have been historically disenfranchised, for those who have been excluded” from the Jewish experience.” Customs from other traditions are mentioned because “people sitting around the table may have experiences within their own traditions with water” and “It’s a way to bring them closer to the Jewish experience.”

Rabbi Jillian Cameron, director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, wrote a great piece, “It’s Not My Face That Makes Me Jewish:”

Over the years I have at times marveled at the fact that I stayed connected to Judaism, after years of being told I wasn’t Jewish, because I have a mother who isn’t or from being questioned based on my appearance. Perhaps it was my stubbornness, my teachers and friends who helped boost my Jewish confidence or simply the fact that I wasn’t about to let these comments diminish my passion for Judaism or derail my dream of being a rabbi. But I know many who have faced these same questions and comments who are now wholly disconnected from Judaism, plagued with feelings of rejection or frustration. Those who weren’t as lucky as I have been. We are the poorer for this loss.

[I]t’s really time to open our minds to what the Jewish community actually looks like right now, in all its glorious diversity—and celebrate the infinite faces of Judaism.

Ryan Lavarnaway, a Major League Baseball player who played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, has intermarried parents (his mother is Jewish, his father Catholic) and didn’t have a bar mitzvah or attend synagogue as a child, but had a Jewish wedding with a Jewish woman and joined a synagogue, and feels more connected to his Jewish identity and the Jewish community after traveling in Israel with Team Israel.

Christine Wolkin, a Honeymoon Israel trip participant, says HMI’s goal is “to make non-traditional Jewish families feel welcome in the Jewish community and to inspire them to incorporate Jewish values into their lives.” She says “My husband and I still have many questions about how we are going to raise our family, but after this experience we feel strongly that no matter what our decision, we are now a part of a supportive community that shares the same concerns.”

Curious about the Catholic view of intermarriage? An article in a Catholic publication defines a “mixed” marriage is between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian, while an “interfaith” marriage is between a Catholic and a “non-Christian.” The Catholic party wishing to enter into either has to obtain special permission from his or her bishop, which is “usually granted on the condition that the Catholic party will not be pressured into abandoning the Catholic faith, and that he or she will remain free to fulfill the duties of a Catholic parent, which includes raising the children in the faith. For the Catholic party to receive this permission, the non-Catholic party must agree to these terms.”

The Indian-American and Jewish-American experiences with intermarriage appear to be similar. According to an article in India New England News, twenty years ago, only 15% of Indian-American marriages were interracial or interfaith; ten years ago, it was 40%; today, it is almost 80%. A party planner attributes this to most Indian-Americans of wedding age growing up in the US and meeting people in high school or college; she refers to “the death of arranged marriages.” She also says the success rate of interracial marriages is very high.

I’m a big fan of the Forward and its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, except for her disapproving views on intermarriage, with which I’ve found myself always disagreeing. But in her March 12, 2018 Jane Looking Forward column, in revealing that she has a rare genetic bleeding disorder that is more common in Ashkenazi Jews than other populations, Eisner wonders whether the passing down of genetic diseases will change “with the high rates of intermarriage among the non-Orthodox?” and then seems to identify a positive consequence: “Shouldn’t we move beyond tribalism to embrace a more varied concept of the Jewish people, to include those of different races and ethnic origins?”

In Brazil, a Jewish woman married a woman from a different faith tradition; they were married under a chuppah, circled each other, and broke glasses. A cantor who is not employed by a synagogue officiated; he said,

It was not a Jewish marriage because one of the brides is not Jewish, it was a spiritual marriage with a Jewish symbology…. It is very important to welcome the union of two people who love each other, regardless of faith, gender or anything else. I feel very happy and honored to be able to bless a union where love, which should have no boundaries or limits, is sovereign…. I follow my perception of what I consider to be the needs of Judaism these days…. The Jewish bride is very tied to the traditions and asked me to reproduce the symbolism of a Jewish marriage because of the importance it had for her.

Finally, an interesting article in eJewishPhilanthropy about the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project in Washington DC run by a group of Conservative rabbis in partnership with Conservative organizations and the DC Federation explains disruptive innovation practices. I’d be interested to know how the project works with interfaith couples, who aren’t mentioned in the article.

Remembering My Father

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My father, Lewis Case, died in February, one day after his 101st birthday. He lived a very long, very full and very good life. He was a model of devotion to my mother – they were married for almost 72 years when she died four years ago. He was a very supportive father to my brother and me, and to our wives. Nothing made him happier than being with or hearing about his four grandchildren and their spouses and children.

My father was the child of immigrants – his mother and father came from eastern Europe as teenagers, and his mother, my grandmother, read and wrote in Yiddish, not English. My father was a model of the American Dream – he went to veterinary school, served in the Army Veterinary Corps in China and India during World War II, and became a successful professional, the president of the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association.

My father was a model of what immigrants can do for our country. Jews of my generation remember their grandparents and have some connection to what being immigrants means; my children and people in their generation are so Americanized they don’t have that experience.

At my father’s high school in Hartford, there were many Italians, Poles, and Irish, but all of my father’s friends were Jews. The idea of marrying someone not Jewish was probably inconceivable to him or my mother; between 1940 and 1960, only 6% of Jews intermarried.

Because veterinarians in those days didn’t compete with each other and there was already a veterinarian in West Hartford where most of the Jews were moving, we lived in Wethersfield, where there were very few Jews. While my parents continued to socialize almost exclusively with their Jewish friends, and while I went to Hebrew school in West Hartford, hardly any of the friends I saw every day in school were Jewish.

It’s a well-known phenomenon that successive generations of immigrants tend to branch out from their own ethnic group, and that happened in my family – much to the chagrin of my father. He was extremely disappointed that I would chose to love someone of a different faith, and Wendy and I had a tortured six-year courtship because our relationship was interfaith.

But my father was also a model of how a parent can chose both to love his child and to see his tradition maintained. When Wendy and I decided to marry, my father and mother decided they were not going to lose me, and he did not intrude or ever say “you should” about anything related to religion. Instead, in what I would call an early instance of a radically inclusive attitude, he chose to love Wendy as his own daughter. His welcoming embrace enabled Wendy and I to create a Jewish family, and our children in turn to do the same. And the last thing Wendy said to him was that he would always be in her heart, just like her own parents are.

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have had my father in my life. May his memory always be for a blessing.

Important New Community Studies

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The Washington DC and San Francisco Federations have announced important community studies that include a great deal of important information about interfaith families’ Jewish engagement. The complete DC study is available; a PowerPoint presentation and highlights of the San Francisco study are available.

The DC study has a very helpful summary about who is considered Jewish for purposes of the study:

Recent Jewish population studies, such as Pew Research Center’s 2013 A Portrait of Jewish Americans, classify respondents according to their responses to a series of screening questions: What is your religion? Do you consider yourself to be Jewish aside from religion? Were either of your parents Jewish? Were you raised Jewish? On the basis of the answers to these questions, Jews have been categorized as “Jews by religion” (JBR), if they respond to a question about religion by stating that they are solely Jewish or “Jews of no religion” (JNR), if they state that they have no religion, but they consider themselves Jewish in another way. Although Jews by religion as a group are more engaged with Judaism than are Jews of no religion, many JBRs and JNRs look similar when examining Jewish behaviors and attitudes.

The San Francisco study appears to use the same definitions. The DC study does add an interesting variant: it includes in the Jewish population adults who indicate that they are Jewish and another religion, a category it refers to as Jews of multiple religions (JMR). Of 175,900 Jewish adults in the DC area, 19,400, or 9%, identify as Jews of multiple religions. The report also notes that 10% of the 51,500 Jewish children living in Jewish households are being raised Jewish and something else.

The amount of intermarriage continues to extremely high. In Washington DC, 53% of married or partnered couples are intermarried (47% of couples are in-married, including 6% with partners who converted to Judaism). Younger married or partnered Jews are increasingly intermarried (or inter-partnered; hereafter I’ll just say “intermarried”); the percentage of married Jews who are intermarried is 61% of those who are 18 to 29, 50% of those who are 30-39, 48% of those who are 40-49, 43% of those who are 50-65, and 36% of those 65 and older. Intermarriage is even greater among LGBTQ Jews – 67% (62% of married or partnered Jews of color are intermarried).

The San Francisco study uses a new term, “inter-group,” to refer to intermarried and inter-partnered couples. In San Francisco, 54% of married or partnered respondents have a spouse or partner who is not Jewish (compared to DC’s 53%), and as in DC, younger married or partnered respondents are increasingly intermarried: 66% of those who are 18 to 34, 59% of those who are 35-49, 52% of those who are 50-64, and 42% of those who are 65 and older.

The DC study reports that almost half (48%) of children in Jewish households are being raised by intermarried parents. In a promising finding, the report says that since 2003, the percentage of children being raised exclusively Jewish by intermarried parents has increased from 45% to 61% (19% Jewish by religion and 42% culturally Jewish. Another 14% of children with intermarried parents are being raised Jewish and another religion, which the report includes as “raised Jewish in some way,” so that 75% of children with intermarried parents are raised Jewish in some way. Only 1% of children with intermarried parents are being raised in a different religion entirely. The report also notes that there are 2,200 non-Jewish children living in Jewish households whose parents have not yet decided on their religion.

The San Francisco data that is available to date does not have percentage breakdowns of how interfaith couples are raising their children religiously. The slides say that only 26% of “inter-group” couples are raising their children “fully” Jewish. The slides include a bar graph; it looks to me like 26% of respondents said Jewish, about 34% said partly Jewish, about 22% said not Jewish, about 15% said haven’t decided, and about 5% said other. It will be interesting to see the actual figures when they are released. At this point I’m at a loss to understand how, with similar amounts of intermarriage in the two communities, the ways that interfaith couples in the two communities are raising their children religiously vary so significantly.

In the DC study, on various measures of Jewish engagement, including participation in formal and informal Jewish education, synagogue membership, holiday participation, and connection to Israel, the intermarried score lower than the inmarried. For example: only 14% of children of intermarried parents attend part-time religious school, compared to 43% of children of inmarried parents; only 11% attend Jewish summer camp, compared to 23% of children of inmarried parents; 14% of intermarried households are synagogue members compared to 48% of inmarried households. The San Francisco study slides note that “In-group couples are much more active in Jewish life than inter-group couples.” There are bar graphs showing the different engagement measures, with no percentages available yet.

Demographic studies have always compared interfaith and inmarried couples on how children are raised religiously and on various measures of Jewish engagement. To me the data should serve as an incentive to increase efforts to engage interfaith couples. The San Francisco study makes an interesting point in that regard: 9% of “inter-group” couples are very interested and 48% are somewhat interested, in increasing their connection to being Jewish.

I believe that inclusive attitudes are key to those efforts being successful. The two studies offer interesting and quite different information about how welcome people in interfaith relationships feel in the Jewish community. The DC study notes that among those in interfaith relationships, 50% find the community to be somewhat (19%) or very (31%) welcoming (it did not ask the question of inmarried couples); the San Francisco study says that 75% of “inter-group” couples feel somewhat (37%) or very (38%) welcome at Jewish activities, not much different from “in-group” couples (31% somewhat and 51% very).

I don’t know why feelings of being welcome would differ so much between the two communities. The questions weren’t all that different: The DC survey asked: “Overall, in your opinion, how welcoming is the Metropolitan DC Jewish community to interfaith families?” Possible answers were not at all, a little, somewhat, very much, or no opinion.  The San Francisco study asked, “How welcome or unwelcome do you feel attending events and activities sponsored by Jewish congregations, groups and other organizations?” Possible answers were very welcome, somewhat welcome, somewhat unwelcome, very unwelcome, it depends/varies, don’t know/have mixed feelings.

It is interesting that the DC study found that LGBTQ individuals find the community more welcoming to them, than interfaith couples do: 64% of LGBTQ individuals find the community to be somewhat (15%) or very (49%) welcoming to GLB individuals. Intermarried LGBTQ individuals are in between: 63% say the community is somewhat (26%) or very (37%) welcoming to GLB individuals.

It’s also interesting that the DC study notes that 33% of intermarried respondents said they felt somewhat or very much like an outsider at religious services, compared to 22% of inmarried respondents.

The DC study mentions and includes some open-ended comments, something that I think enhances the value of the information very much. The study notes that “68 respondents in interfaith relationships reported ways that the community made them feel unwelcome” and includes three comments from people in interfaith relationships, including “I could use programs that address people, like me, who feel like outsiders in the Jewish community,” “I just want to be comfortable bringing my interfaith partner to events without him feeling pressured,” and,

As someone from an interfaith household, it’s hard to engage with the community if I have to convince my spouse, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll feel comfortable and welcome.’ She often feels like the Jewish community is insular and skeptical of non-Jews, and that makes it hard for me to find ways to engage in the community as well.

In other related news: the Forward has a very important article, based in part on the San Francisco community study, about young Jews becoming ambivalent about or unsupportive of Israel. I was very pleased to see that intermarriage is not blamed. Steven M. Cohen is quoted as saying that the reasons young Jews are moving towards a more neutral position about Israel are that they are defining their identity in less ethnic terms (with Israel falling “in the ethnic compartment”), and Israeli policies are alienating to political liberals.

Also, perhaps in connection with Valentine’s Day, the Pew Research Center issued an updated 8 Facts about Love and Marriage in America. Among other points: 88% say love is a very important reason to marry, while only 30% say having their relationship recognized in a religious ceremony is an important reason; 17% of newlyweds in 2015 were married to someone of different race or ethnicity, an increase from 3% in 1967; 39% of those who married since 2010 have a spouse from a different religious group, up from 19% of those who married before 1960.