Variations on Inclusion

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I loved Rabbi Deborah Waxman’s explanation of why the Reconstructionist movement  rebranded itself as “Reconstructing Judaism,” including her statement that “A critical path forward is shifting from a focus on ‘being’ Jewish – important but insufficient for providing substance and structure – to a focus on ‘doing’ Jewish.” That shift in focus is a fundamental basis of a radically inclusive approach to interfaith families, and it’s not surprising that Rabbi Waxman also says, “Let’s make sure our children can tell their non-Jewish friends, family members and life partners how Jewish organizations opened pathways to engagement.”

There’s been more ferment in the Conservative movement about intermarriage. In Jews Should Have Taught Our Children How To Intermarry, Philip Graubart, a Conservative rabbi who is now the “Chief Jewish Officer” at a day school in San Diego, relates that thirty years ago his father, also a Conservative rabbi, took the position that “we need to imbue young Jews with enough self-confidence and pride that even if (or, really when) they intermarry, they’ll insist on raising their kids as Jews.” Graubart says his father was correct:

None of the dating schemes or the refusals to officiate, or pushing away the non-Jewish spouses during bar-bat mitzvah ceremonies, or the sometimes complex conditions some rabbis put on intermarried couples — take these classes, perform these rituals, structure the ceremony in these ways, stand here during this ceremony, but not here; say this, but not this — made a dent in what we now recognize was inevitable. In a free and prosperous country, Jews are going to meet and marry non-Jews in large numbers, no matter we do.

But Graubart says his father did not go far enough:

Rather than refusing to officiate at intermarriages, we should have insisted that we were exactly who these couples needed to sanctify their union, without conditions. At least then, Jewish spirituality would have had a voice and role in the most important day in the lives of a generation of young Jews (and many non-Jews). Instead of rejecting their most important and intimate decision, we could have helped them celebrate, and kept them close. But we pushed them away.

Graubart says the issue is larger than intermarriage – it is what to think about and how to live with those who are not Jewish. The attitudes that have “colored all our thinking about intermarriage” are that they “threaten us physically. Or they engage in non-Jewish practices which tempt us. Or, more subtly, they threaten our distinctive identity. They come too close, sometimes into the very walls of our synagogue, or on the bimah.” Graubart says things have changed, “non-Jews” (his term) are a crucial part of our Jewish community, and

[O]f course, many of the non-Jews now married to Jews take the lead in creating Jewish moments for their kids. Imagine what they would have done if, instead of rejecting them on the most important day of their lives, we embraced them. It’s probably time to start.

In the meantime, Josh Nathan-Kazis reported for the Forward that a little more than a year ago, a young Conservative rabbi discovered that the Conservative movement never officially adopted its ban on blessing intermarriages, that the movement’s response was to convene a secret commission, and that the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) (the association of Conservative rabbis) recently adopted the commission’s recommendation with “new language for the rules that reaffirm most of the ban on blessing intermarriages.” The RA has also had a rule that Conservative rabbis could not attend interfaith weddings; the commission apparently reported that the RA had not enforced that rule and suggested “the beginning of a process that could allow rabbis to attend them without sanction.”

The article notes that while some “insiders” knew that the rule against attendance was not enforced, other rabbis complied with the rule at great personal expense, including not attending weddings of family members; Nathan-Kazis had a follow-up article titled Saddened Rabbis Learn They Could Have Gone to Loved Ones’ Interfaith Weddings.

Nathan-Kazis writes that some rabbis see the commission’s report, by opening up the standards and practices for discussion, “as a first step toward acceptance of intermarriage by the Conservative leadership.” Separately, Rabbi Graubart offers his take on the issue:

[I]s the debate over intermarriage really about rules?… Aren’t there other values at play — family, romance, intimacy, respect, kindness, tolerance, pluralism, freedom? Of course these questions lead me to similar inquiries about Conservative Judaism. Can a great religious movement really be reduced to a set of behaviors, or even a range of behaviors within a prescribed path? Isn’t there more to Conservative Judaism — more to Judaism — than Halacha?

I try not to say “non-Jew” any more, and would respectfully suggest to Rabbi Waxman and Rabbi Graubert that they consider not doing so either. I saw an interesting piece relating to another controversial term, “half-Jewish,” recently. In There’s No Such Thing As ‘Half-Jewish.’ It’s Simply ‘Jewish.’Alyssa Pinsker relates how as a child of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and after practicing Judaism for eleven years, “somehow I am always considered ‘half’.”

The position of the half-Jew is different from any other bicultural or biracial adult: One side is rejected by traditionalists, and the other by anti-Semites. Ask most Israelis, Conservative Jews and any Orthodox Jew, and they will quickly tell you that I am not Jewish. On the other hand, during a teaching stint in Switzerland, I lost my job due because I was practicing Judaism openly and talking about it; and with my Jewish background, I could never work in Saudi Arabia. This puts me -– and all other so-called “half Jews” — in a painful twilight zone, neither here nor there.

Pinsker is considering undergoing an Orthodox conversion “so that my children don’t have to go through what I went through.” In the meantime, she says, she’s “made my choice about who I am – despite the hardships, and regardless of whether or not I go through conversion down the road….I am just another Jew. Period.”

In other news, you might want to see:

  • A nice mention in the Forward of Hebrew College’s graduate certificate in Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement led by Keren McGinity.
  • A great report on One Table that notes that 15% of hosts come from interfaith families.
  • A nice article on Base Hillel that notes that 13% of participants came from “non-Jewish” homes.
  • Yet another example of the Israeli attitude that intermarriage is the same as assimilation – with the wrinkle that Arab Members of the Knesset don’t want their children to marry Jews and be “assimilated.”

Revisiting the December Holidays

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As always at the end of the year there were a lot of stories about interfaith families and the December holidays. The topic has been covered so much that it’s hard to find much new. But Rabbi Matt Gewirtz’ Why Santa Brought The Rabbi’s Daughter a Gift was extraordinary. When his youngest daughter, who says she wants to be a rabbi, asked if Santa would visit her, and his older children called her a baby and said Santa isn’t real, he told her not to stop “believing what your heart tells you.” He leaves her a present with a note from “Santa” saying he “knew she was Jewish but she got a present because she believed in him.” Though concerned he was spiritually confusing his child, he decides that “Her relationship with the mythical was age-appropriate, helped her delve deeper into her sense of wonder,…[I]t was somehow about a connection to that which will ultimately make her feel safe and connected to the possibility of the unknown, to the potential for her to feel sure in the world of the mysterious.” I thought this was just the kind of wise and confident approach that we need more rabbis to take towards interfaith couples who celebrate Christmas.

I also loved Converts Are Constantly Asked If We Miss Christmas. It’s Complicated. The elements the author recalls with fondness are now attached to Shabbat and Hanukkah – “I continued to light candles, have gatherings with friends and family, sing special songs and give presents during the darkest days of December.” The author loved three classic Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Muppet Christmas Carol, but watching them again with “now-Jewish sensibilities” realizes that there is no Christian doctrine in any of them, and further that “those three stories are more about Yom Kippur than they are about Christmas,” given their sinful characters who face the truth about themselves and make commitments to living a different life. The author concludes, “No, I don’t miss Christmas, but I’ve repurposed a part of it to suit my Jewish life. Let me tell you about my favorite Yom Kippur movies…”

I liked two other personal stories about interfaith families whose Christmas celebrations don’t impair their Jewishness: in Holidays with the McDowells, a young man whose Jewish mother loves Christmas (with no Jesus) puts almost 100 Santas on display, while his Catholic father “in many ways has somehow out-Jewed his Jewish wife;” in The Hanukkah Tradition From My Christian Mother-in-Law, a Jewish woman gets a dreidel every year from her Christian mother-in-law.

I didn’t like How The O.C.’s Chrismukkah Became a Real Life Holiday. I’ve written several times that I don’t think that Chrismukkah, to the extent it means mushing two holidays together to make a new one, is a good idea. (Sorry to be a scrooge but I don’t think things like the “Santa Dreidel” are a good idea either.) (Or that the term “Christmasukah” is a welcome addition to the discussion, as in Christmasukah: Conservative synagogue members discuss their approach to interfaith challenges.) The author says that Chrismukkah “brilliantly combined each holiday’s best attributes,” is “an embrace of the reality of a hybrid identity,” and “the perfect outlet to navigate the tension of assimilation.” He says the three people raised in interfaith families he spoke with discussed the isolation and confusion they experienced during Christmas. But the family of one of the three treated the holidays as equals and didn’t fuse the two together.

There is still a way to go before Jews accept the idea that interfaith families can experience Christmas traditions without religious doctrine and can celebrate Christmas without undermining their children’s identity as wholly or partly Jewish. Maybe that’s why Rabbi Gewirtz’ story is so powerful, without even coming from an interfaith family. He reports that his daughter who for the time being still believes in Santa wants to be a rabbi when she grows up.

The Latest on Birthright Israel and Intermarriage

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

The study makes many interesting observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inclusion as a New Year Begins

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Charlene Seidle, an important funder, in Five 2018 Jewish Philanthropy Trends To Watch, refers to “positive opportunities to meet our constituents where they are, in innovative ways that resonate with their needs and interests.” She continues:

Judaism is our competitive advantage, and 2018 is the year to use Jewish wisdom to its full and vibrant extent. This will not happen by drawing lines in the sand, but rather by being radically welcoming and giving people of all interests and backgrounds the chance to produce, consume, revive for themselves, speak up, speak out and “pray with their feet.” If we don’t, the existential crisis will not be their rejection of all that’s righteous, but rather the dire loss of talent that the Jewish community will suffer through our rejection of those who don’t look and feel exactly like “we” do (whoever “we” is these days).

I love the reference to “radical welcoming” and agree about the dire loss of talent that rejection generates. I love that Seidle refers to Jews of Color as an example, noting they represent 20% of the Jewish community and that “if we were fully inclusive, Jewish convenings like the GA, URJ Biennial, Jewish Funders Network and others would include scores of non-white Jews. What an opportunity to form new friendships and benefit from the diverse experiences which contribute to innovation and reinvention in lasting ways.”

But I can’t help but note that if we were fully inclusive of interfaith families and partners from different faith traditions, who represent 50% of the Jewish community and even more of the liberal Jewish community, that would really “make 2018 the year of bold Jewish philanthropic vision and action.”

When the Forward asked twenty rabbis Where Do You See the Jewish Community in 50 Years,  two responses related to that need for inclusion: Reform Rabbi Denise Eger, former head of the CCAR, saidThere are more Jews leaving the formal attachments to the Jewish community because the structures of the community are not in touch with where the Jewish people are really at,” and Reconstructionist Rabbi Nina Mandel said “My hope is that in 50 years, the global Jewish communities will be embracing the diversity of practice, region, ethnicity and peoplehood.”

The top story in the New York Jewish Week’s Stories to Watch in 2018 is “Rabbis Officiating at Intermarriages:” “As intermarriage increases in this country, the willingness of rabbis to officiate at interfaith marriages is becoming a topic of growing interest, especially in the Conservative movement… 2018 could prove to be a pivotal year in the debate.” The Jewish Week suggests that processes and decisions by Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie and congregation B’nai Jeshurun perhaps provide “a blueprint for others wishing to find some way to support interfaith unions.” There was an interesting story in the Wisconsin Jewish newspaper, Local synagogues work to welcome interfaith families, about increasing welcome to interfaith families, including rabbis who have started to officiate for interfaith couples, as well as anecdotal data on apparently increasing instances of conversion. This will clearly be an important continuing story in the new year.

In “’Interfaith’ term rings hollow for some Jews” Holly Lebowitz Rossi, reporting on a panel at the URJ Biennial for the Religion News Service, writes that Jewish communities are “more supportive and inclusive than in previous generations” but the “language of this inclusion effort matters” to interfaith families. Rossi quotes InterfaithFamily’s Jodi Bromberg recommending that Jewish communities stop using the term “non-Jew.” She also quotes a rabbi who says the term “interfaith” isn’t accurate and prefers “families where individuals come from different faith backgrounds.” But I agree with Susan Katz Miller, also quoted in the article, that the term “interfaith” “works for families that have chosen to practice only Judaism, as well as those that maintain both parents’ traditions.” The article has one other very interesting comment by a lay person at the biennial, who distinguished welcoming and inclusive: “Welcoming makes you feel like you’re a guest, … Inclusion is, ‘you belong here.’”

Let’s hope that 2018 does become a year of inclusion and bold philanthropic vision and action toward that end.

Welcome Back, URJ!

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The Reform movement made a very important announcement last night, the launch of RJ Connect, which has the potential to engage many more interfaith couples and families in Jewish life.

The Reform movement originated what used to be called “outreach” to interfaith families back in the 1980s. The movement had a pioneering outreach department that at its high point had a part-time regional outreach director in the movement’s fourteen regions around the country. The outreach staff were exceptionally warm, embracing, talented and hardworking ambassadors who helped congregations to be more welcoming and to offer programs, including the Yours, Mine and Ours workshop that helped new couples learn to talk and make decisions about having religious traditions together.

Sadly in 2003, the outreach department was dismantled, reportedly for financial reasons. I heard at the time a view that if interfaith families were going to join synagogue, they would gravitate towards Reform synagogues, so no special outreach efforts were needed.

In 2007 InterfaithFamily started an officiation referral service to help interfaith couples find rabbis to officiate or co-officiate at their weddings. In the ten years since, InterfaithFamily responded to probably more than 15,000 referral requests. In 2011, InterfaithFamily launched its Your Community initiative, with staff rabbis in communities around the country offering a range of services and programs, including workshops/discussion groups/meet-ups for new couples.

It is very affirming to see the Reform movement come back with its huge resources to once again offer services and programs explicitly aimed at reaching and engaging interfaith families. RJ Connect will apparently include an officiation referral service that will help couples – including but not limited to interfaith couples – to find rabbis and cantors – limited to Reform rabbis and cantors – to officiate. RJ Connect will also in some fashion offer the Yours, Mine and Ours program for interfaith couples. These are very promising initiatives and a welcome addition to existing efforts that include and reach beyond Reform clergy and congregations.

The URJ announced that Rabbi Julie Zupan will be RJ Connect Director – I want to personally congratulate Julie, who has done a wonderful job as director of Reform Jewish Outreach Boston. I send her very best wishes for success in her new very big job with very big potential.

Growing Inclusivity

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The intermarriage news since the High Holidays has continued to be positive for the most part. I was especially pleased to read Rabbi Micah Streiffer’s Yom Kippur sermon announcing that he was going to start officiating at weddings for interfaith couples. I say “especially” because Rabbi Streiffer is in Toronto, Canada and as far as I know he is the first Reform rabbi there to officiate. I remember many years when InterfaithFamily was not able to refer people in Toronto to any “mainstream” rabbis, so this is a welcome breakthrough.

I also say “especially” because Rabbi Streiffer cites the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion in which Moses says that everyone present is entering into the covenant with God – and Rabbi Streiffer explicitly says that includes “the ger, the non-Jew.” That’s an argument I first made back in 2000. It’s very affirming to have a rabbi endorse of that view. It’s an exemplary inclusive sermon that is well worth reading.

A second great item was an article by InterfaithFamily’s Stacie Garnett-Cook, Interfaith Inclusion: One Year to Lasting Change, who asked, “What should an organization actually do to become more inclusive? Many organizations say that they are welcoming, but do our actions and words match our intentions?” InterfaithFamily’s new Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI), modeled on the Keshet Leadership Project and funded by the Covenant Foundation, supports leaders in organizations who create and implement action plans to accomplish those goals. The article describes the program design and underlying theory, as well as the organizations that participated in the first year.

The importance of being truly inclusive in attracting and engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community can’t be over-estimated. I hope many more Jewish organization will seriously consider participating in this initiative.

I was honored to be included in Moment Magazine’s Symposium, Is Intermarriage Good for the Jews? (If you want to know how I looked at 24, take a look at my wedding photo – my 7-year old grandson said I looked “young” – and I assure you that the tie I was wearing was very fashionable at the time!) Marilyn Cooper did a great job putting together very diverse views; reading all of them carefully left me feeling, well, that there are very diverse views. I was the only person who actually said there are many strong arguments why intermarriage is good for Jews. Keren McGinity also expressed a positive view:

Provided that intermarried Jews and their families are treated equally as inmarried families, and that Jewish education is accessible and engaging, intermarriage can be an opportunity for Jews and their loved ones to draw closer to Judaism and the Jewish community.

Several contributors, including Bob Davis, A. J. Jacobs and Naomi Schaefer Riley, saw increased tolerance as a positive impact of intermarriage. Rabbis Matalon and Lau-Lavie, who are pushing the Conservative movement’s boundaries on officiation, offer very realistic assessments that I thought were optimistic about engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

But there were several expressions of quite negative views. In upholding the movement’s ban on officiation, I respectfully think Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is wrong to say that officiating at interfaith marriages does not help the Jewish people, and that “Reform rabbis have been doing this for quite a while and, for the most part, they have not succeeded in convincing the intermarried couples to be actively Jewish.” I think that is an untenable position given the research I’ve mentioned many times that shows correlation between officiation and later synagogue membership and raising children as Jews.

Two Orthodox perspectives insisted on opposing intermarriage, one saying “intermarriage is heartbreaking.” Sarina Roffe was most extreme: “Every time someone marries out, a whole generation of Jewish people is gone.” She comes from the Syrian Jewish community, which she says rejects not only those who intermarry, but even those who marry Orthodox converts.

I was puzzled by Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel, who says that if he had intermarried, “experiences that I currently derive tremendous meaning from would be missing.” I say puzzled because there is no reason why the experiences he mentions – saying Kaddish for a parent, preparing a son for his bar mitzvah, and watching a daughter learn Hebrew – have to be missing in intermarried families.

The Forward also published We asked 22 rabbis: Is intermarriage a problem or an opportunity which offered a not dissimilar set of diverse views. Susan Katz Miller had an interesting take on the piece, criticizing the sample for being half Orthodox rabbis (when the Orthodox are 10% of the population) and only two Reform, and the “corrosive” content of many of the responses. She correctly points out that interfaith families reading many of the opinions will not feel welcomed or included.

I was struck, however, by responses from two wonderful Orthodox rabbis, Shmuly Yanklowitz and Avram Mlotek, who did emphasize inclusivity. Rabbi Yanklowitz said, “With the proper inclusive programming and outreach opportunities, there are ways to make interfaith families feel welcome in the community, which will, in turn, spark interest in creating and perpetuating loving Jewish households.” Rabbi Mlotek said, “If our Jewish communities seek to be relevant religious centers for the 70% of American Jews who choose to intermarry, it is incumbent upon us to welcome these families unabashedly and work with them as they strive to build Jewish homes.”

Finally in the continuing discussion about Conservative rabbis and officiation, there is items. Letter Reignites Interfaith Officiation Debate refers to a letter by four Conservative leaders that re-affirms the ban on officiating for interfaith couples, but does talk at length about welcoming them. Conservative Jewish Leaders Are Endangering Their Brand is an opinion by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall who objects to the letter’s statement that the intermarried should be welcomed with “equally open arms.” Kwall wants to retain the Conservative brand’s strong preference for in-marriage — that’s a non-inclusive approach that I believe can only lead to decline.

Letters in the Scroll

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I hope your Jewish holidays this year were good. Despite all of the bad news in the world, my holidays were excellent. They ended with the first grade consecration of my oldest grandchild on erev Simchat Torah at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts. The rabbi had all of the children present at the service sit cross-legged on both sides of the center aisle of the sanctuary and rolled out two Torah scrolls with the children holding them off the floor while the end of one and the beginning of the other were read; the look of awe on my grandson’s face was wonderful to see. I wish all of the people who say that the grandchildren and children of intermarriage won’t be Jewish could have seen it.

My holidays began on an equal high, and that’s saying a lot. Rabbi Allison Berry of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts gave a truly wonderful sermon, The View From Mt. Sinai – Building Our Inclusive Community. Recalling Jewish tradition that the people gathered at Mt. Sinai included generations past and future, she said “I was at Mt. Sinai. I was there, and so were you.” She said “all of us were part of the … chain of tradition.” And then she made  explicit who she was talking about, mentioning first by name the parents and children of an interfaith family (before mentioning her adopted Korean-American sister, an upcoming Bat Mitzvah who uses sign language, seniors and transgender people). Noting that nearly half of the Temple’s religious school students come from interfaith families, she said “you are part of us. We appreciate the many ways you expand what it means to be Jewish…. We are honored you have chosen this community.”

Rabbi Berry is a rabbi who “gets it.” I wish the critics of intermarriage who say the Jewish community is already plenty welcoming to interfaith families would take this to heart: “I’ve learned from experience there is a tremendous difference between being a welcoming community and being a community that actually includes. We need to allow our perceptions and assumptions to be challenged. We need to be vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable. We need to be aware that language has the power to include or exclude.”

I was especially moved when Rabbi Berry quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as saying “The Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah [Torah scroll], and each of us is one of its letters.” While Rabbi Sacks is a brilliant Jewish scholar and teacher, he is a harsh critic of intermarriage; one of his many books, Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren, suggests he would be surprised that my grandson was just consecrated, and I don’t think he would say there are letters in the Torah for intermarried partners from different faith traditions, or for the children of mothers who are not Jewish. But Rabbi Berry does. She said that “Somewhere embedded on the scrolls behind me, in our ark, is the letter containing” the story of the interfaith family she first mentioned;

Together these letters of Torah construct our history and our future. They are an expression of our joys, sorrows, and moments of transcendence. When we leave people out or do not see those asking to be allowed in, we lose letters vital to the integrity of our Torah. When we build sacred, inclusive community we stand together as envisioned at Sinai….

We need more rabbis like Rabbi Berry whose deep-seated attitude is that there are letters in the Torah not just for every Jew, but for every Jewishly-engaged person.

It was quiet on the intermarriage front during the holidays. I was very pleased to be quoted in a great JTA story about How Mark Zuckerberg Is Embracing His Judaism; I had said in my last blog post, after Zuckerberg’s Facebook post that he had given his grandfather’s Kiddush cup to his daughter, that “The fact that such a super-influential couple clearly are making Jewish choices for their family is the best news with which to start the new year. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan could really change the course of Jewish history if they got involved in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life.” I’d like to think there are letters in the Torah for Priscilla Chan and her children.

Before the holidays there was a lot of news about developments in the Conservative movement. The leaders of the movement just today came out with a statement that affirms the movement’s invitation to partners from different faith traditions to convert, its prohibition on rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples, and its desire to honor and include them:

It is a blessing that growing numbers of non-Jews are willing to see us as colleagues, neighbors, friends and even family…. We joyously include them and their families in the lives of our congregations and organizations, in our teaching of Torah, in our worship, in our social action. And we find ways to celebrate their marriage and love that honors their choice not to merge their identity with the people Israel by being present as pastors before the wedding, as rabbinic guides and companions after the wedding and as loving friends during the wedding period.

There is a lot that is positive in this language. But with all respect, the stated reasoning behind the officiation prohibition – “Honoring the integrity of both partners in a wedding, and for the sake of deepening faithful Jewish living” – is misguided, in my view. The partner from a different faith tradition who wants a rabbi to officiate isn’t dishonoring his or her integrity, and I believe it is clear that officiation leads to more faithful Jewish living, not less. They are saying, in effect, that that partner doesn’t have a letter in the Torah unless he or she converts.

Positive Outlooks Greet the New Year

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

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

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

Hillel and our Jewish community benefit enormously from that diversity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objective Social Science?

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Michelle Shain, a researcher at the Cohen Center at Brandeis, has written a very damaging article about the Cohen Center’s game-changing study, Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage, about which I’ve said, “The many rabbis who don’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples because they think those couples won’t engage in Jewish life no longer have that leg to stand on.” Shain says she is a social scientist and wants people to understand exactly what the study demonstrates and what it does not – but she picks and chooses pieces of the study that support the apparent intention of her article to support maintaining Conservative rabbis’ opposition to officiation for interfaith couples.

The key findings of the study were that interfaith couples who had a rabbi as sole officiant were far more likely to join synagogues and raise their children as Jews. Shain’s main point is that those who chose to have a rabbi had richer Jewish experiences, so that the “logical conclusion is that their stronger pre-existing Jewish commitments led them both to seek a rabbi to officiate at their weddings and to engage in Jewish life after their weddings.” She says that on four measures, including having a special meal on Shabbat, there was no difference between couples who had a rabbi and those who did not after controlling for the pre-existing differences.

What she doesn’t say is that the study says (at p. 21) that after controlling for pre-existing differences, “intermarried couples who married with a sole Jewish officiant were still significantly more engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples on many of the outcomes discussed above. In particular, they were significantly more likely to raise their oldest child Jewish by religion, enroll children in a Jewish early childhood education setting, belong to a synagogue, attend religious services, celebrate Jewish holidays, participate in Jewish community activities, donate to Jewish or Israeli causes, and talk to family and friends about Judaism.” (emphasis added)

Shain also stretches to mention – without citation – a 2010 study that she says shows that officiating rabbis don’t have subsequent contact with couples, and take the standard pot-shot that without a random sample survey, no one can say anything about the impact of officiation on subsequent Jewish engagement.

Shain like anyone else is entitled to her views on policy, but is it appropriate to position oneself as an objective, dispassionate researcher and be selective like this? Conservative rabbis who oppose officiation have already made the pre-existing differences argument, and now have support from a researcher at the Cohen Center itself, when the key findings about raising children and synagogue membership aren’t touched by that argument.

I would urge Conservative rabbis to consider what the study very carefully does say, without claiming causation: ““Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.” That is entirely consistent with common sense and experience, which sometimes are as important as research.

Fortunately, there have been five very positive responses to intermarriage in recent weeks — you can read about them here.

Postscript September 19
Len Saxe and Fern Chertok have an excellent response in eJewishPhilanthropy, Neither Fact Nor Fallacy.

The Conservative Officiation Debate Continues

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The media buzz about Conservative rabbis and officiation at weddings of interfaith couples has slowed, but there has been important commentary in the past three weeks.

The rabbis of the Jewish Emergent Network – certainly among the most progressive younger rabbis in the country – expressed solidarity with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie for raising important issues, expressing “hope that in the months ahead, the focus will shift from internal Jewish politics to the ways in which contemporary Jewish spiritual leadership, as it looks both to the past and the future, will respond to the increasingly fluid boundaries between the categories of Jew and non-Jew.”

The Pittsburg Jewish Chronicle had an excellent summary of the Conservative officiation debate in an article about varying opinions of local Conservative rabbis. One rabbi said the Rabbinical Assembly should only change its prohibition if there is an adequate halachic basis to do so; one said if the RA changed its stance he still wouldn’t officiate. The article reports that there is a petition being circulated to affirm the prohibition and that the RA has a Blue Ribbon Commission examining the boundaries of the prohibition – not overturning it, but defining what it means.

I was disturbed to read Steven Cohen quoted as criticizing the Cohen Center’s research showing a strong association between having a rabbi officiate and interfaith couples’ later joining synagogues and raising their children Jewish. Cohen apparently says the study provides no evidence of impact and just shows that people who seek a rabbi are more Jewishly engaged. I think the Cohen Center’s interpretation makes much more sense: “Interactions with Jewish clergy in preparation for the wedding may serve to welcome the non-Jewish partner into Judaism, establish the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and affirm the couple’s prior decision to raise a Jewish family. However, the opposite may also be true. Rejection by Jewish clergy may serve to dissuade couples from pursuing other Jewish commitments and connections.”

The article reports that Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, who said he would officiate for interfaith couples if the RA changed its prohibition, found a way to participate in a wedding without overtly violating it: while under the chuppah he delivered the “wedding talk,” while a Reform rabbi conducted the actual marriage ceremony. He said, “I believe that for rabbis who are congregational rabbis, after 12 to 15 years these children are like your own children…. And I have to say, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t perform your wedding.’ They never get over it.” He continued, and I think this makes a great deal of sense,

We are not going to have a better chance of a Jewish future if we reject our children. There is no chance then. The more welcoming we are, the better chance we have for a Jewish future. I do believe this is a matter of life and death for our movement. I believe intermarriage is not leading our kids away from Judaism. I believe it is our reaction to intermarriage that is pushing them away.

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who was expelled by the RA because he started to officiate for interfaith couples, says that the leadership of the Conservative movement is at odds with its members. “The Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary may adamantly reject the idea that Conservative rabbis should officiate at interfaith marriages; the Conservative constituency overwhelmingly believes they should.”

Intermarriage is one of the clearest manifestations of the consequences of the gap between rabbis and constituents, which I believe is at the core of the crisis in Conservative Judaism today. But the fundamental issue is that while leadership still perceives Conservative Judaism as a halachic movement, its constituents do not. For them, Judaism is not about law. It is a matter of the heart and spirit. It is about intent, feeling, and identity. And when it comes to intermarriage, it is about love. It is not about adherence to technical standards that are arcane and burdensome, that lack transparency, and make life harder and more difficult. Like most non-Orthodox Jews, members of Conservative synagogues are seeking religious communities that enable them to celebrate the milestones of their life with joy and meaning, and which help them shoulder the burdens of a challenging society with greater confidence and purpose.

But where they seek peace, Conservative Judaism offers Halacha. Where they yearn for fulfillment, they are given the message that they are Jewishly inauthentic. Where they crave acceptance, they are judged.

The New Jersey Jewish News had an interesting essay by Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptmann, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a grandchild growing up in an interfaith home. She says that as of now, she won’t officiate for interfaith couples, “but I wish I could.” (The essay is about what she says is the more important question of how to get the children of intermarriage to grow up Jewish, and about the key role that grandparents can play.)

Finally, there was a great article interviewing Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, who outlined six tips to make both sides feel comfortable while respecting their traditions. She explains she made the difficult decision to co-officiate because “there have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.”