More Shifting Ground

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It’s been busy the past two weeks. As Shmuel Rosner just pointed out, since his original article a month ago, “The volume of writing on Jewish interfaith marriage in America is high.”

Rosner had said that in the absence of definitive studies or any consensus, the debate about whether intermarriage will weaken or strengthen us will be decided by trial and error over three or four generations, with some rabbis officiating and some not. I said his was an incredibly non-activist approach and that “arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships.”

Rosner now says that I was right, in the sense that a clear and unified message might be better. But he says critics of intermarriage can make the same argument, that “arguing that sticking with in-marriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. In-marriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis officiating – disapprove of insistence on Jewish couples and relationships.”

That is a false equivalency, in my view. There can’t be any question that decrying intermarriage turns interfaith couples away, or that insisting on in-marriage doesn’t work. No one is arguing that in-marriage is bad. Rabbis officiating for interfaith couples does not send a message of disapproval of in-marriage. Intermarriage could be regarded as an equal norm, along with in-marriage; they can co-exist. It’s the insistence that there is only one right way that’s the problem.

Rosner says a Conservative rabbi who refers to “the naive hope that [a rabbi] standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they build” is right. How anyone can hold that position after the Cohen Center’s latest research showing the positive impact of rabbinic officiation escapes me. (Rosner cites an article by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall that rolls out the tired old, previously failed strategy to “actively” encourage conversion, and an interesting “descriptive, not opinionated” analysis by Emma Green in the Atlantic.)

The Continued Decay of Jewish Federations, which generated a lot of comment on eJewishPhilanthropy, takes pot shots at intermarriage; the anonymous author says “if the person I walk down the aisle with isn’t Jewish, how much am I really going to care about the [Jewish] folks down the block?” and “72% of non-Orthodox intermarrying is … about Jewish apathy.” Fortunately one comment wagers that the writer “holds outdated views that intermarriage… divorce[s] from the Jewish community,” while another says “this resentment of people in interfaith relationships has got to stop.”

Thankfully there has been more positive perspective in the media. Rob Eshman, publisher and editor of the LA Jewish Journal, says:

But I know — we all know — too many wonderful intermarried couples. They continue to serve the community as volunteers, funders, activists. They raise children who go on to practice Judaism, embody its values and contribute to the Jewish community and the world. They succeed at being Jewish far, far better than any number of “in-married” Jewish couples who stay uncurious and uninvolved, whose biggest contribution to Jewish life was paying the rabbi who married them.

This truth puts rabbis and movements who resist intermarriage in the same bind as many were before acknowledging same-sex marriage. How do you exclude a committed, loving constituency, willing to belong and contribute to Jewish life, from meaningful Jewish rituals? Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?

The ground has shifted on this issue, and something tells me we’re about to find the answer.

One outstanding example of an answer is Debbie Karl, who tells How One Interfaith Family Found a Home in a Synagogue: because a wonderful rabbi agreed to officiate for her and “turned the whole process into a positive experience for both of us.” If she hadn’t, “that could have been the end of Judaism for me… I could easily have written off organized Jewish life, as so many disenchanted Jews choose to do.” This is one of the most persuasive pieces by a lay person that I’ve ever read; I wish every rabbi who doesn’t officiate would read it and take to heart what she says about the children of intermarriage:

if they do choose a non-Jewish partner, and try to find a rabbi to marry them, will they be accepted and counseled warmly and openly? Will their interest in honoring their Jewish heritage with a Jewish-style wedding be respected and appreciated? Or will they be made to feel that they are being judged for marrying the person with whom they have fallen in love, who happens not to be Jewish? Will they feel unwelcome in the very synagogues and communities which raised them?

An outstanding example of a cantor who “gets it” is Erik Contzius, who says Let’s Stop Calling It “Intermarriage.” He used to not officiate, but “Coming to understand how a hostile attitude from clergy turns young couples away from Jewish identity and practice changed my mind.”

I can almost guarantee that a couple of divergent religions will not affiliate, identify, or become otherwise involved with the Jewish community if they are turned away and thus invalidated by Jewish clergy who tell them that they will not officiate at their wedding.

Avram Mlotek, a courageous Orthodox rabbi, reports that he “encountered fierce opposition” to his op-ed about welcoming interfaith families and “ adopting a posture of radical hospitality,” but steadfastly believes that “providing a space that caters to every Jew’s spiritual needs — even if that Jew is married to someone of another faith — is the most practical way to ensure the future of the Jewish family.”

Two of the smartest thinkers on intermarriage happen to be senior leaders of the secular humanist movement. Rabbi Adam Chalom offers Intermarriage Agony? Been There, Past That:

So when the Conservative Movement grapples publicly with whether or not their rabbis should maybe consider a way to possibly be less than fully rejectionist, the arguments for inclusion are what we [secular humanists] have been saying and living for 40 years. We who have celebrated interfaith and intercultural families for a generation are pleased to have company, but like the woman in a board meeting whose ideas are overlooked until repeated by a man, we are not amazed. Better late than never, and better now than later, and still better to recognize that you are late to the party.

Today the Reform Movement trumpets its “audacious hospitality”, the Conservative Movement will accept non-Jews as members (with limited privileges), and intermarriage-friendly rabbis are easily found online at InterfaithFamily.com. The one piece missing in most of this dialogue is, “we’re sorry, we were wrong.” For the thousands of couples, families, and children pushed away by Jewish communal shortsightedness over the past decades, some teshuva (repentance) might also be helpful.

Paul Golin offers two excellent pieces. Intermarriage is the Wrong Bogeyman (an edited version of a longer piece on Medium) explains that the approach that intermarriage is the cause of declining Jewish engagement is based on

a dishonest sociology…, promulgated by a handful of academicians who’ve been at it for decades…. Shmuel Rosner, a reporter who contributed to this latest effort, displays this confusion when he writes, “interfaith marriage leads to eventual assimilation.” Such purposeful oversimplification is not sociology, it’s smear. “Assimilation” is not the story we’ve seen for huge swaths of intermarried households. Intermarried Jews are involved in all Jewish denominations and most organizations. There are literally hundreds of thousands of exceptions to the supposed rule.

Golin argues that theism is the problem – most people do not believe in the concept held by most of organized Judaism of a God that answers personal prayers. I agree with Golin that “When there’s no magical ‘Jewish gene’ to perpetuate, Judaism must be about meaning and benefit. And if Judaism is meaningful and beneficial, why would we limit it to just Jews?” But while secular humanism may be an approach that would suit many interfaith couples, many others are interested in spirituality, and the religious movements could do a lot of work developing concepts of God and liturgies that express those concepts that contemporary couples would be far more comfortable with.

In his second piece, Golin uses the terrible situation of government of Israel reneging on a deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall to point out that the Chief Rabbinate’s claim that liberal expressions of Judaism are invalid is not unlike liberal Jewish leaders’ claims that intermarriage makes a Jew “not Jewish enough.” I agree that his as usual trenchant comment: “policing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of who’s doing it.”

Inside Intermarriage

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August 1, 2017 is the publication date for the new version of Jim Keen’s Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Journey Raising a Jewish Family. I was honored to write the Foreword to this one-of-a-kind book: the warm, personal, light-hearted but very serious story of a Protestant man raising Jewish children together with his Jewish wife.

When Jim Keen and his fiancée Bonnie were planning their wedding, her Jewish grandmother wasn’t sure she would attend, because she disapproved of intermarriage. But she chose love, and danced with Jim at the wedding, saying “you’re my grandson now.” That story brought tears to my eyes, and it and others in this book might to yours.

Interfaith couples like Jim and Bonnie who care about religious traditions face what I call “eternal” issues. Not in the sense that the issues can’t be resolved, because they can be, as Jim’s story vividly demonstrates. But all interfaith couples who want to have religion in their lives have to figure out how to relate to each other and their parents and families over religious traditions; they all have to resolve whether and how to celebrate holidays, to be spiritual together, to find community of like-minded people.

This book follows Jim’s journey through all of those issues. From dating, falling in love, meeting the parents, deciding how children will be raised religiously, considering conversion, to getting married; from baby welcoming ceremonies, to celebrating holidays, finding community, and meeting his own needs in a Jewish family. It’s a deeply moving story, told with humor, and it’s an important one.

Jim Keen’s example of one interfaith couple’s journey to Jewish continuity is reassuring. Interfaith couples who are or might be interested in engaging in Jewish life and community can learn from Jim’s story how doing so can add meaning and value to their lives.

Along his journey, Jim shares extremely helpful insights. For example: his and his wife’s feelings and attitudes changed over time, with him moving from feeling different, “standing out,” “not belonging,” to feeling “part of.” For another: interfaith couples, no matter what path they follow, have to make a conscious effort to work out their religious traditions, which can lead to more thoughtful and deeper engagement. And another: interfaith couples aren’t alone, and it’s very helpful to become friends and work through issues with other couples.

Interfaith couples follow many paths, and Jim Keen doesn’t say his path is right for everyone. He continued to practice his own religion; some partners in his position don’t practice any religion, or practice Judaism, or even convert. Jim and his wife chose one religion for their children; some couples decide to raise their children in two religions, and many couples haven’t decided, or haven’t yet. The clear advice Jim does give is that there are solutions to the issues that interfaith relationships raise, and that the key to resolving them is early and ongoing respectful communication. How Jim spells out the negotiation and communication he and his wife had over many issues will help couples facing the same issues, no matter what paths they may be thinking of taking.

Jim expresses deep gratitude for finding very warm and welcoming JCC pre-school and synagogue communities, and especially a rabbi by whom he felt genuinely embraced. It is essential that more interfaith couples experience that kind of welcome. Most Jews have intermarried relatives now, and many Jewish professionals are working with people in interfaith relationships. This book promotes better understanding not only of the eternal issues interfaith couples face, but in particular the perspective of the partner from a different faith background.

Jim Keen doesn’t promote intermarriage, but he does recognize its positive impacts, including an appreciation for tolerance and diversity. He writes that being in an interfaith relationship has broadened his perspective and enhanced not only his life, but also his parents’ and in-laws’ lives too. He still enjoys “belonging to [his] Scottish-American, Protestant group, but it’s a warm feeling being able to see the world through Jewish eyes, as well.” He also rightly recognizes his and his family’s contribution to the Jewish community: “I am proud to say, there are some Keens who happen to be Jewish. I love it.” I love it, and I think you will, too.

Today, with intermarriage so common, Jim Keen’s perspective is more important and valuable than ever. Jim Keen and his family – on both sides – are heroes of Jewish life. They are role models for how a parent from a different faith background and a Jewish parent, together with all of the grandparents, can support the Jewish engagement of their children and grandchildren. They all deserve deep appreciation for this utmost gift, Jim especially for shedding light on the journey.

You can order the book here.

More Negative Conservative Officiation News

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The intermarriage debate in the Conservative world over officiation continued since June 21 with a mostly negative focus.

In a positive step, the Conservative-trained rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun explained their decision to create a new ceremony to officiate for interfaith couples. I applaud their decision and think their reasoning is very important: (1) “We subscribe to the approach in Halacha, rabbinic law, that holds that Jewish law must be interpreted and applied in relation to the realities of the community.” (2) There are two current realities: “When selecting life partners, shared American values often play a bigger role than religious identity, even for strongly-identified and -committed Jews; at the same time, never before have non-Jews been as open to playing an active role in the Jewish community, with or without conversion.” (3) They want to “be courageous and expand Halacha as a living and dynamic system with both commitment and compassion.”

Also, at least one more Conservative rabbi thinks it’s time for creative solutions. Rabbi Alfred Benjamin proposes that interfaith couples have a civil legal officiant who declares them married, and a Conservative rabbi lead a non-halachic “celebration of commitment” that is “infused with Jewish meaning, ritual and symbolism.”

When it comes to building and strengthening Jewish connections between an interfaith couple who want a Jewish-faith family, it is time for the Conservative Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly to be creative, courageous and encouraging. This scenario permits us to do so in a way that respects the integrity of all involved and is also “good for the Jews.”

While I don’t agree with all of Rabbi Benjamin’s reasoning, in particular what a partner from a different faith tradition could do or say with integrity, at least his proposal has Conservative rabbis acknowledging, welcoming and celebrating the couple and their commitments.

But the  Jewish Theological Seminary announced that it was not appropriate for Conservative rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples. JTS says that there is “much that Jews can and must do to signal our respect and welcome for non-Jews in our community, whether or not they choose to become Jewish,” but warmly invites “those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families” to convert. There’s nothing new there. But respectfully, the JTS statement goes off the rails when it says first that the data confirms that “by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with the Jewish family” and then continues: “This is not the moment for Conservative Jews and their rabbis to abandon the profound and joyful practice of rituals and learning, work for social justice and encounter with the Divine, love of Torah and love of the Jewish people that continue to make this form of Jewish life a source of community and meaning.” It is a non-sequitur to say that officiating for interfaith couples would mean such abandonment; indeed I believe, and the Cohen Center research on the impact of officiation shows, that officiating would lead to more Jewish life of community and meaning.

The New York Post summarized that B’nai Jeshurun was telling interfaith couples to “goy ahead” and marry in their sanctuary. (I hate that term.) A Canadian Conservative rabbi said the “renegade rabbis” at Lab/Shul and B’nai Jeshurun don’t deserve admiration or praise. Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall’s take on all of the discussion is that conversion should be promoted.

There were three more essays by individual Conservative rabbis that call out for response.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik disagrees strongly with officiating for interfaith couples, arguing that “boundaries are irreducibly critical to the Jew’s quest for a holy life.” But it is a non-sequitur to suggest that being holy by being separate and not like everyone else means that Jews shouldn’t marry people from different faith traditions. It isn’t being separate for separateness’ sake, it means acting in ways that lead to holiness – ways that people from different faith traditions can embrace, without conversion. Rabbi Skolnik also says that interfaith couples choose to intermarry and “Judaism should not be forced to grant its imprimatur to couples whose free-will choice violates the sanctity of the traditional marriage boundary.” While saying that officiating goes too far, he does acknowledge the Jewish community’s “urgent responsibility to make interfaith couples feel welcomed and loved, even if it means pushing the envelope of comfort in synagogues and communal organizations.” Trends in Conservative movement to date have shown that interfaith couples don’t feel welcomed and loved when rabbis won’t officiate for them.

Rabbi Abigail Treu actually says, “When a rabbi says no, couples just find someone else to do what they were going to do anyway. We just lose the chance to bring Jewish life into that moment, or to share their joy and add to it.” I posted on Facebook comment that said “Just? Really?” It’s distressing to me that the director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC Manhattan, someone who lead Introduction to Judaism classes for several years, could so cavalierly dismiss the opportunity that officiating provides for influencing interfaith couples towards future Jewish engagement. Contrast her suggestion that couples don’t want rabbis to officiate anyway to Anita Diamant’s statement in her revised The Jewish Wedding Now that if you want a Jewish wedding “you need a rabbi.” The JCC Manhattan offers great programming for interfaith couples, so I hope I misunderstood Rabbi Treu’s point.

Rabbi Aaron Brusso, who is on the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly, wrote A Letter to Couples of Jewish and Non-Jewish Backgrounds, another distressing dismissal of officiating’s potential for positive influence. Rabbi Brusso says that he respects people’s decisions and that they have done nothing wrong by falling love; but it doesn’t make sense “for the wedding ceremony to view [them] instrumentally as builders of Jewish homes” (a pot-shot at Rabbi Angela Buchdahl’s argument that they in fact can be); and when they decided to marry “saving the Jewish people” wasn’t on their list of things to do. He says he’s sorry if they don’t come and talk to him in person – but with comments like that, who would want to? Rabbi Brusso’s main point is that the liturgy of a Jewish wedding doesn’t fit an interfaith couple – when it refers to celebrating the wedding “in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for example – but how many Jewish-Jewish couples have that understanding of the liturgy?

Rabbi Brusso dismisses the Cohen Center research by saying “I could play the demographic numbers game and rationalize that my presence under the chuppah with you and others is a statistical winner for the Jewish people. But the chuppah is not a Vegas table.” Actually, many Jewish engagement programs are offered because of belief they will be statistical winners that result in later engagement. He says the wedding is about who the couple is – disregarding who they will be or might become. Tellingly, Rabbi Brusso explains that he seriously dated a Methodist woman while in college, and once when they saw the movie Europa, Europa together, when he sobbed, “she was appreciative of what I was feeling, but it was clear that it simply did not mean the same thing to her.” Respectfully, that perspective is short-sighted – it forecloses the opportunity for a partner from a different faith tradition to gain that kind of understanding and feeling.

Two voices from the Orthodox world chimed in. Rabbi Yogi Robkin says Worried about Jewish Assimilation? Be A Good Person — For Judaism’s Sake with a story of a rabbi who donated a kidney to a stranger. I wouldn’t argue with his main point, which seems to be that the most important thing is to “reach out and extend a hand to those floating by.” Unfortunately he quotes another Orthodox rabbi, Efrem Goldberg, who says that recognizing patrilineal descent and officiating at weddings of interfaith couples represent “gross distortions of halacha, mesora [tradition] and the will of the Almighty,” attempts “to put a Band-Aid over a deeply infected wound that is gushing blood.”

It’s not surprising that Rabbi Goldberg’s antidote is more adherence to halacha. But it’s disappointing to hear the editors of the New Jersey Jewish News say that
“if the present demographic trends [i.e., intermarriage] continue, Jewish life and peoplehood as we know it may well disappear in the coming decades.” Their proposal: Jews marrying Jews.

This is all rather depressing. To review: Officiating for interfaith couples would mean abandoning Jewish life. Conversion is the answer. Boundaries excluding partners from different faith traditions are necessary for holiness. We shouldn’t be forced to approve voluntary boundary violations. It doesn’t matter anyway, couples will just have a friend officiate. They’re not builders of Jewish homes and they don’t care about the Jewish future. Officiating increases the chance of a Jewish future for them? Well, what matters is who they are now, not what they might become. And anyway, the chuppah’s not “a Vegas table.”

Is it surprising that interfaith couples would not want to participate in a community that sent those kinds of messages?

Fortunately, there’s a more positive perspective.

The Flip-Side: Positive News About Intermarriage

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Alongside the negative comment about officiation in the Conservative world, there has been some positive commentary and news about officiation and intermarriage.

Leave it to Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, to provide a much-needed perspective on how rabbis asked to officiate are actually helping interfaith couples.

By telling someone we will not marry them, we are not stopping them from marrying someone of another faith background. What we’re stopping them from (and I have heard this time and time again) is engaging in Judaism and being part of the Jewish community.

The couples who are told by rabbis and communities that “We accept you and your partner” and also, “I cannot officiate your wedding, but you can still buy High Holy Day tickets”… often come to me dejected and confused and wondering how to fill their desire for Jewish engagement. During my first meeting… I spend most of the session repairing the hurt and rejection they are feeling.

One such couple… said “We were planning on having a friend do our ceremony, but now we’re excited to have a rabbi.” I hear this refrain over and over from interfaith couples as they are searching for a way to engage Jewishly and are hearing “No, you’re not welcome here” either explicitly or by liberal rabbis who mean well but whose boundaries are so tight that they do not allow them to see the people sitting on the couch in their office.

I hear a lot of people say that interfaith marriage is always bad for Judaism and always leads to disengagement and the decline of Jews. But the truth is, life is not that simple. Families are complicated and most people’s religious experience lives somewhere in that gray area between full observance and secular identity. To flat out deny someone the possibility of Jewish engagement at the beginning of their union ignores the real life experiences of people in our communities.

Naomi Schaefer Riley has an interesting take on the Conservative debate, focusing on the B’nai Jeshurun decision to officiate if the couples promise to raise their children Jewish. Echoing Keara Stein, she says

If there’s one thing that drives intermarried couples around the bend, it’s the fact that the same rabbis who refuse to marry them because one spouse isn’t Jewish will turn around a few years later and push them to send their children to the synagogue preschool. In my interviews [for her book on interfaith couples], this practice is commonly labeled “hypocritical” by those affected by it.

Riley makes the interesting observation that the Catholic church used to require the non-Catholic spouse to promise to raise children Catholic, but decided it couldn’t in good conscience make that request, and changed its policy. She says that Jewish leaders “have no standing to demand that a non-Jewish spouse do anything at all.” Despite that, Riley does think the B’nai Jeshurun policy will lead interfaith couples to have an important discussion before they marry about how they will raise future children.

In my view, one of the most important things Jewish communities can do to engage interfaith couples – after ensuring that they can have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding – is to foster just those kinds of discussions in groups or meet-ups for interfaith couples. So I was pleased to see, in the midst of all the debate about officiation, an excellent article in the Boston Globe about Honeymoon Israel, an excellent program that fosters those kinds of discussions within the context of a heavily-subsidized trip to Israel. The article quotes Avi Rubel, co-founder, as viewing intermarriage not as a loss – “It’s not a minus one, it’s a plus one.”

Rubel says Honeymoon Israel’s goal is not to convert couples or convince them to raise Jewish children, but “to empower the couples who go on the trip to question those things.” Sixty percent of the couples who take the trip are interfaith, including the author of the article, who writes that a few months after the trip, her group “had settled into a pattern of Friday evening Shabbat dinners with our new friends.” This is very important. It shows what’s possible when interfaith couples are welcomed with positivity and trusted to work out their prospective Jewish engagement with other interfaith couples.

After officiation and discussion groups often come interfaith families with young children – and there’s positive news from PJ Library, one of the most important Jewish engagement programs ever. PJ commissioned an evaluation of its impact on families based on 25,270 responses to a survey, and 45 interviews. They highlight that 28% of the families receiving PJ books and materials are intermarried and that intermarried families report even more favorable influence than in-married families – for example, 89% of intermarried families say PJ has influenced their decision to learn more about Judaism, compared to 67% of in-married families. The evaluation includes selected quotes from respondents; several highlight intermarried families, including one that explains how the books help the parent from a different faith tradition learn about Judaism. It is refreshing to read an evaluation report that says it is “exciting” to see intermarried families reporting enjoyment and use of the books equally or more than the aggregate.

One of the report’s conclusions is that “there is room to grow the program among … intermarried families” and that PJ needs to expand efforts to reach more of the less-connected, less-affiliated families. I very much hope that PJ does that. It’s interesting that PJ’s influence is greater within the home; other studies have found that interfaith families are more comfortable engaging in Jewish life at home with their family than in more public, organized settings. The report notes that PJ traditionally has reached families through organized institutions such as synagogues, Federations, or JCC’s; that’s not where interfaith families tend to be. The report notes that interfaith families tend to have a lower level of Jewish engagement than in-married families; their scale of Jewish engagement awards points for having children in several Jewish education sessions, belonging to or participating in a synagogue, donating to a Jewish charity, having mostly Jewish friends, and feeling it very important to be part of a Jewish community; again, these are factors favoring Jewish engagement in public settings.

The report also contains a seed of explanation as to why interfaith families are less engaged. While some families want to see more diversity in the types of families represented in the books – with one quote from a respondent explicitly saying “more cultural books… more related towards interfaith-style families would be amazing” – other families do not want this type of diversity, with one quote saying “We value traditional values and have had to screen some of the books out as not appropriate for our children.” It’s very clear to me that the continuing negative attitudes many Jews express about intermarriage are related to interfaith families’ lesser Jewish engagement, in both public setttings and at home. But I applaud PJ Library’s efforts which over time can lead to a change in that dynamic.

After young interfaith families often come b’nai mitvah, and the Arizona Jewish Post has a very sweet story about two families’ wonderful experiences at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. One family had a father and son bar mitzvah – the father’s mother was not Jewish, he was raised Jewish but didn’t have a bar mitzvah, he and his son converted before the bar mitzvahs “to confirm their identity.” The father’s wife/boy’s mother is not Jewish but experienced Judaism to be welcoming; the father says without her support, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. The other family included a Jewish mother from the FSU, married to a man named Bernstein who had a Jewish father but was raised Catholic; the father says, “I’m still Catholic, but I love being a member of Temple Emanu-El. I’m Jewish culturally and by identity. That works.” The son says, “The tradition was in my family, but it got lost. There was this connection with Judaism that was renewed when I had my bar mitzvah.” One more proof of what’s possible and positive when interfaith families are embraced.

That intermarriage is an inexorable worldwide phenomenon is again confirmed in a fascinating episode on interfaith marriage on the BBC radio show All Things Considered. The four panelists include Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has been one of the most progressive rabbis on interfaith family issues in the UK, a Christian woman married to a Jew who started an interfaith family network, an imam and a minister. Among other things, Rabbi Romain said that 50% of UK Jews are now intermarrying, and that more UK Reform and Liberal rabbis are starting to officiate at weddings for interfaith couples – as recently as two years ago, as far as I know only two Reform rabbis were willing to do so. The minister made a great point about people from other than Christian traditions celebrating Christmas – for them it can celebrate peace and good will to all, not Jesus’ divinity.

Finally, the new rabbi at Montreal’s Dorshei Emet, reportedly one of the few if not the only Reconstructionist congregations where interfaith weddings are not done, comes with experience officiating for interfaith couples and “makes the case that such marriages can be beneficial to the Jewish community, even when no commitment to later conversion is made by the non-Jewish partner.” And Keren McGinity persuasively presents the need for Jewish professionals to study intermarriage.

Remembering Jonathan Woocher

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The Jewish world has lost a truly remarkable leader with the death of Jonathan Woocher on July 7. Many tributes and memories can be found on Jon’s Facebook page, a statement from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah which he led and more recently served as Senior Fellow, a JTA story in the Forward, a statement from the Jewish Federations of North America, on eJewishPhilanthropy, and more.

In addition to being one of the smartest and most enlightened thinkers in the Jewish world, what stood out most about Jon Woocher to me was how kind and supportive he was, of me personally, and of the work of InterfaithFamily. Looking through my old email I find that as early as 2005, when I asked Jon for help to make IFF’s first new hire since it was founded in 2002, he said “very nice – kol hakavod” and had helpful suggestions to offer, as he did several times over the years in connection with other hires and potential funders and partners.

Jon replied to one of our regular updates in 2008 with “incredibly impressive” and again, what must have been a favorite phrase, “kol hakavod.” When we launched InterfaithFamily/Chicago in 2011 as our first direct service, on-the-ground operation, Jon said “Wow!  This is great news.  Mazal tov and yasher koach.  I look forward to seeing this initiative unfold.”   In response to a 2014 report from Jodi Bromberg, Jon said “What an exciting report.  Kol hakavod to you, Ed, and the staff and Board for continuing to build on IFF’s solid base.  It’s gratifying to see how many communities are now recognizing the valuable contribution IFF can make on the ground locally.”

All of this encouragement might not seem particularly special, as many people have commented on how supportive Jon was to them. But the difference is that the cause of engaging interfaith families Jewishly has not been a popular one. I often felt I was knocking my head against walls. Support from Jon Woocher, such a highly regarded scholar and professional, meant a great deal to me – it inspired me to keep working to advance the issue. And when the issue finally started to get more positive attention, Jon was there to help, gracing the October 2016 Interfaith Opportunity Summit as a panelist.

In 2015 when a group of leaders issued their Statement on Jewish Vitality, J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward that the two main criticisms (though for different reasons) were from me and from Jon. I told Jon I felt that I had been elevated into really good company. In his typical humble way, he said he liked the company he was in, too – but truly I was the one who was honored to be mentioned along with him.

My recollection is that the first time I ever spoke to Jon, he mentioned that his wife Sherry thought highly of InterfaithFamily’s content and used it in her own work. I am sending my very sincere condolences and sympathy to Sherry and her family on their terrible loss.

Postscript July 11: You can read Joe Kanfer’s incredibly meaningful eulogy here.

The Jewish Wedding Now

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I don’t have any weddings in sight – my children are married and I’ve been married for 43 years myself. Nevertheless, I loved reading Anita Diamant’s The Jewish Wedding Now.

A revised version of The New Jewish Wedding, first published in 1985 and revised in 2001, the book conveys what seems to be a huge amount of information about Jewish wedding traditions in a warm, informal and engaging style. I learned a lot that I didn’t know, about the engagement ceremony known as tenaim, for example, or the tradition of the badchan, a joke-telling entertainer at the wedding. I highly recommend the book for anyone looking ahead to a wedding – marrying couples, their parents, their relatives.

I’m most interested of course in interfaith couples, and highly recommend The New Jewish Wedding to them and their families too, because the book clearly is written with them in mind.

Describing changes over time, Diamant says “the huppah, the wedding canopy, has become a very large tent, open to Jews of all descriptions and denominations… and people from different faith traditions. The status and validity of some of these weddings is the subject of intense debate – par for the course in all things Jewish – but this edition reflects the facts on the ground.” She explains that there is no chapter devoted to intermarrying couples because the book “is a menu for all who wish to include meaningful Jewish choices as they plan their ceremony and celebration; choices that are the same for everyone.”

That’s the overall tone Diamant takes towards interfaith couples – intermarriage is happening, interfaith couples are welcome to make the same Jewish choices as everyone. To those who say the presence of interfaith couples under the huppah is a threat to Jewish tradition, she says “the countervailing tradition of adaptability is the reason why Judaism has survived and thrived.” The addition of new faces under the huppah, she says, are “a healthy infusion of living waters, mayyim hayyim, and another chapter in a long, lively, disputatious history.”

If you stop to think about it, given that many in the Jewish community would not recognize a wedding of an interfaith couple as a Jewish wedding, it is quite remarkable that a prominent author revising a book about Jewish weddings for the third time would so matter-of-factly and explicitly help interfaith couples design their own Jewish weddings.

When I first read that there was no special chapter for interfaith couples, I was concerned, unnecessarily as it turned out, that the special considerations that interfaith couples do indeed have would not be addressed. To the contrary, in a few pages under the title “Non-Jews under the Huppah,” Diamant succinctly addresses the history of attitudes towards intermarriage, states that now “intermarriage is the communal norm” (I strongly agree), discusses some of the questions interfaith couples encounter, and says “Couples who can talk about religion before their weddings are much better prepared to handle knottier questions later on” (I strongly agree). She also addresses ways to inform relatives from different faith traditions about what will be happening, and ways to include them in the wedding ceremony. I love how she casually mentions the presence of other traditions, when she talks about including phrases written in Chinese or Hindi on wedding invitations, translations of interfaith ketubot into Spanish and Japanese, and huppot made from Scottish tartan or African textile.

I love that she talks about the phenomenon of couples having friends ordained for the day to officiate at their weddings, but gently says “you need a rabbi” to create a Jewish wedding. I love that Diamant encourages interfaith couples to find a compatible rabbi to officiate at their weddings, describing some of the rejection they may encounter and resources available to help them.

As Diamant says, debate is par for the course in all things Jewish. I don’t agree with Diamant saying that the term “interfaith is only appropriate if the non-Jewish partner has an ongoing connection to another religion and wants that tradition reflected in the wedding ceremony and in married life.” As I’ve said before, “interfaith” today doesn’t mean anything about religious practice, that couples are practicing two faiths, or one and none; it just means they come from different faith traditions. I also try not to use the term “non-Jew” because people don’t define themselves as “non’s” and would have preferred to see the admittedly ungainly phrase, “partner from a different faith tradition” throughout the book.

Moreover, a not insignificant proportion of interfaith couples are looking for rabbis to co-officiate their weddings with clergy from other religious traditions; The Jewish Wedding Now is, I believe, silent about that phenomenon. As I noted above, the book is extremely informative about Jewish wedding traditions, with parts appealing perhaps more only to those interested in more traditional ceremonies. I would have liked to see a nod to couples looking for co-officiation – something like “this is a book about Jewish weddings, not really about weddings that are conducted in Jewish and other traditions, although you can find elements of Jewish weddings in it that you might incorporate in such a wedding.”

But it’s a tribute to The Jewish Wedding Now that it would in fact be informative and helpful to the whole range of interfaith couples planning a wedding and wanting their wedding to include Jewish traditions, and it’s written in a way that makes those traditions accessible and inviting to interfaith couples.

The Intermarriage Debate Escalates

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There’s been an explosion of news and comment about intermarriage in the past ten days. On June 11 I blogged about Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie’s big reveal that he would officiate for interfaith couples who were the modern-day equivalents of the ger toshav, the “resident alien” who in the past was not Jewish but lived among and interacted with Jews and had some status under Jewish law. Lau-Lavie’s proposal got more coverage, from Gary Rosenblatt in the New York Jewish Week, as well as a statement from the head of the Conservative rabbis’ association that reiterated their opposition to Conservative rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples.

The Forward publicized Lau-Lavie’s proposal and invited comment to a new “conversation” about intermarriage I thought the most trenchant comment came from Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, a senior Conservative rabbi who had announced that he would officiate for interfaith couples, and was expelled from the Conservative rabbis’ association. Rabbi Rosenbloom writes that Lau-Lavie’s idea, while creative and imaginative, is fatally flawed, “too little, too late.” “The person who is not Jewish is not looking to study for six months, make various commitments for future involvement in the Jewish community, and be known (I must say, derogatorily) as a ‘resident alien’….” “Mostly, this proposal is about making a rabbi feel comfortable doing something he or she wants to do but is not permitted to do.” Rabbi Rosenbloom says that what couples want from officiants is affirmation:

We should embrace them with love and affirmation, not make demands upon them that they cannot possibly commit to, and act as if we are grudgingly doing them a favor.

What we need most is faith in the future. We need to believe in Judaism. We need to believe that the wisdom of Jewish teaching, the ethical values that are at the heart of that teaching, and lure of being part of an ancient people that is continually reinventing itself to be relevant and responsive to the changing religious, spiritual, and moral demands of every epoch, are compelling enough that many of these couples will choose to live as part of the Jewish community. We need to put fewer obstacles in their path. We need to welcome them for what they may add to our people as well as what we might add to their lives.

Susan Katz Miller also offered What Do Interfaith Couples Want From Rabbis: she says they want co-officiants, not to be forced to make promises about how they will raise children, and Jewish institutions to educate their children even if they are raising them with both religions in the home.

In the meantime, on June 16 the Forward, the New York Jewish Week and JTA reported that the rabbis at “mega” “flagship” synagogue B’nai Jeshurun in New York had announced that they too would officiate for interfaith couples who commit to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. Interfaith couples will sign a ritual document but not a ketubah. The rabbis will still hold to the matrilineal definition of Jewishness. As JTA reports, BJ is “large and trendsetting, and “has roots in the Conservative movement, [but] is unaffiliated with any denomination.”

And also in the meantime a brave Orthodox Rabbi, Avram Mlotek, wrote Time to Rethink Our Resistance to Intermarriage. He actually says, “A posture of radical hospitality and love will be the only way to ensure Jews remain Jewish and Jewish remains worthwhile.” And “In order for the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, it’s time we revisit our tribalistic approach toward intermarriage and our highly divisive conversion practices. Instead, welcome “the other” into the Jewish family. The rest is commentary.” The liberal Modern Orthodox seminary where Rabbi Mlotek was ordained, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, was quick to reiterate its opposition to intermarriage.

There are two important commentaries on all of the news. Shmuel Rosner, in The rabbis’ intermarriage debate: How to decide who is right and who is wrong, says the issue is complicated when demography and continuity and the perspective of Jewish policy are taken into account. Pragmatically, he writes, “the Jews should know by now that ‘stopping’ intermarriage is a hollow quest. It is not going to happen…” but intermarriage is a challenge that may be manageable, and may even be an opportunity, but may reduce the number of Jews and the intensity of Jewishness. Rosner concludes that the only way forward is to “let this trial and error run its course.”

If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us – and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.

The problem with this incredibly non-activist approach is that arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples relationships.

Andrew Silow-Carroll has a very interesting take on the latest research showing lesser engagement by interfaith families. He says that critics of the researchers say that they “don’t see the people behind the numbers.”

These critics say the major studies and their authors treat the intermarried as a statistical burden rather than living and breathing individuals making sometimes hard, sometimes welcome choices. That interfaith couples feel judged by the “tribalistic” mainstream, and that Jewish institutions should accept people as they are, not as they wish them to be. Besides, critics say, the statisticians are working against forces they can’t resist and longing for a past that cannot be recaptured.

In response to the Forward invitation to join the new “conversation” about intermarriage, I adapted the piece I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy, How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to  Interfaith Families Be? and the Forward published We Must Embrace Interfaith Families – with No Strings Attached. I said that all of the commentary and discussion about Conservative rabbis officiating skirted the difficult issues that have to be addressed if interfaith families are going to engage Jewishly – the need for radically inclusive attitudes and practices, the need to stop privileging in-marriage, the need to welcome people from different faith traditions without limitations.

Silow-Carroll says the intermarriage debate has “escalated” and judging by all of the commentary it surely has. Stay tuned to see how it develops next.

Postscript June 21

That was fast! Today the Forward has prominent Conservative rabbi Rabbi Daniel Gordis saying The Conservative Movement Will Inevitably Cave on Intermarriage. Rabbi Gordis seems to lament a series of Conservative halachic decisions that in his view gave in to social pressure – allowing people to drive to synagogue on Saturdays, to eat fish in non-kosher restaurants, to sanctioning same-sex marriage (he says he isn’t taking a stand on the last issue in this essay). The interesting point he makes, that I hadn’t thought of: if Conservative rabbis officiate at weddings for interfaith couples, it would be an untenable position for them to later say “yes, one of our rabbis married you, but no, we don’t consider your children Jewish.” In other words, they will have to recognize patrilineal descent; Rabbi Gordis laments, “Not that far off is the day when people whom Conservative Judaism calls Jews will not be able to marry Orthodox Jews or many Israelis.”

More Conservative News and Debate, and June Round-up

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There’s been a steady stream of intermarriage news related to the Conservative movement. In April Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, an emeritus rabbi who we’ve applauded before, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly because he officiated for interfaith couples, was published in the Washington Post: I performed an intermarriage. Then I got expelled.

Then in May a much younger Conservative rabbi, Steven Abraham, a 2011 JTS graduate, offered It’s Time to Say “Yes.” Our friend Rabbi Brian Field (a Reconstructionist himself) responded that Rabbi Abraham is not alone, and gave a wonderful explanation how The Torah of Inclusion Offers Us a “Yes” to Interfaith Couples. But another young Conservative rabbi wrote about five steps to “save Conservative Judaism” – with no mention of interfaith families.

In June an article in the Forward about rabbis trying to make the Conservative movement more gay-friendly mentions Rabbis Adina Lewittes and Amichai Lau-Lavie as leading advocates within the movement for intermarried spouses; “Lau-Lavie will not perform any weddings until the movement revisits its blanket prohibition on rabbis officiating marriages for them; Lewittes resigned from the R.A. in order to lead interfaith ceremonies.”

Lau-Lavie’s Lab/Shul had announced an annual celebration on June 13 featuring “the revelation of our groundbreaking response to intermarriage and the evolving identities of Jewish Americans” – but the news is out in an piece by the Forward’s Jane Eisner, Why This Renegade Rabbi Says He Can Marry Jews — And The Jew-ish. As Eisner describes it, Lau-Lavie plans to use the ger toshav, resident alien, concept “within a halachic framework to justify intermarriage under certain conditions.” He will ask prospective couples to devote six months to learn about core Jewish values and to demonstrate a genuine commitment to community (he won’t co-officiate). He will engage academics to “study whether this explicit welcome-with-conditions will result in a strengthened Jewish commitment.” He will most likely have to resign from the Rabbinical Assembly.

Eisner, who is hostile to intermarriage, says she is “fascinated” by the experiment, but skeptical. She apparently lined up Steven M. Cohen, also hostile to intermarriage, to simultaneously comment that while we “need” Lau-Lavie’s approach, it won’t succeed unless Jews “understand that Judaism believes that Jews should marry Jews.”

I have enormous respect for Amichai Lau-Lavie. I look forward to his own explanation of his approach, and I hope that it helps the Conservative movement address intermarriage. Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has expressed open-ness to the experiment — but cautions that it’s the Rabbinical Assembly that makes halachic rulings. But creating a status that confers certain benefits, which necessarily means that another status does not have those benefits, is not the inclusivity that liberal Judaism needs to thrive in the future.

In the new Forward piece Cohen says that about 8% of the grandchildren of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews-by-religion, but last fall he gave me data that showed a total of 38% were being raised as Jews-by-religion, partly Jews-by-religion, and Jewish but not by religion. He of course will say that if children aren’t raised Jews-by-religion, it’s not really good enough. Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, also hostile to intermarriage, have a new paper released by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute with their tired analysis that intermarried Jews don’t measure up on their traditional scale of how Jews ideally would behave, and offering policy suggestions to get Jews to marry Jews.

That train has left the station and trashing intermarriage just pushes those who intermarry away.  Eisner says she wants to “sustain and enrich modern Jewish life;” Cohen says “Being Jewish gives us meaning because it makes demands upon us – to treat others kindly; to help improve the world; to engage in Jewish learning; to imbibe in Jewish culture; to mark the Jewish holidays and live the Jewish calendar; to be involved in the affairs of the Jewish people, State, community and, yes, family.” We will experience more people gaining that meaning and doing their best to follow those demands – and thereby sustaining modern Jewish life – with a radically and totally inclusive, truly audacious welcoming, of interfaith couples.

Razzie Awards

In an otherwise really nice article, How My Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Almost Didn’t Happen, Peter Szabo, who is intermarried, marvels that somehow, the Judaism within his family “survived assimilation in Hungary, Holocaust machinery, suburban assimilation in America.”  Szabo can be excused for incorrectly citing the Pew Report as saying that 80% of the children of intermarriages are not raised Jewish, but the Forward editors surely know that the correct figure is 37%.

In an otherwise fine article titled College doesn’t turn Jews away from Judaism, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America, says that Jews with and without college degrees are just as likely to have a Jewish spouse, then says “college education and assimilation do not go hand in hand.” In other words, he equates not having a Jewish spouse – being intermarried – with assimilation. He should know better.

Doing Both

Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley’s TEDx talk about how they are raising their children with  Christianity and Islam has interesting parallels to Jewish-Christain couples doing both.

Forthcoming Books

I’ll be writing more about new editions of two books that are great resources for interfaith couples. The second edition of Jim Keen’s Inside Intermarriage – I was honored to write the Foreword – will be available on August 1 but can be pre-ordered now. The third edition of our friend Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Wedding – now titled The Jewish Wedding Now – came out this past week.  

 

How Audacious Will Our Hospitality to Interfaith Families Be?

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published in eJewishPhilanthropy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Trip To Spain

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My Trip to Spain

My wife and I just returned from a wonderful trip to Spain. On past travels it seemed that I couldn’t avoid interfaith family issues; this time was no exception.

Jewish Affinity on a Tapas Tour

In Madrid we went on a tapas tour with Luis Ortega Bofill. Luis was very friendly and eager to share his deep knowledge about Spanish history as well as food. He also was very Catholic, enthusiastically telling us how the Sudarium of Oviedo, a relic held in Spain, confirms that the Shroud of Turin was Jesus’ burial cloth. (I’ve always been fascinated by the Shroud and had never heard of the Sudarium.)

We had noticed that a lot of the items on tapas menus were ham, so we told Luis that we didn’t eat ham. When we said it was for religious reasons, he said that he probably had Jewish ancestors – the name Bofill was a common Jewish name when the Sephardic Jews of Spain were forced to convert or be expelled in 1492.

I really liked Luis – and wondered if it was because he had Jewish ancestors. It’s not the first time I’ve thought that way. My college roommate, with whom I’m still close, who never met a Jew before college, had a Jewish grandfather, and I used to wonder if that’s why we got along so well.

But I’m conflicted about thinking that way. Traditionally, Jews are supposed to feel connected with, even responsible for, all other Jews. That feels like it could be unequal and discriminatory and could set up a conflict in an interfaith relationship with the partner from a different faith background who presumably isn’t going to feel the same way. Or maybe it’s okay to feel an affinity with people who are part of your group without feeling that your group is superior or exclusively connecting only with people in your group.

Messianic Judaism in Toledo

We went on a day trip to Toledo to see what had been the Jewish quarter and specifically the Museo Sefardi (as well as El Greco paintings in several locations – I really like El Greco paintings). The museum is housed in what was a synagogue built in 1355, but it did not have explanations in English of what is on display, and the audio tour didn’t work well.

That was just disappointing. I had a much stronger negative reaction at the other former synagogue in Toledo, the Sinagoga de Santa Maria La Blanca. I knew that it had been turned into a church, but I didn’t expect to see a small exhibit in a side building that appeared to be promoting some form of so-called Messianic Judaism. I don’t understand Spanish, but there was a poster with a lot of Hebrew and obvious Jewish symbols surrounding a drawing of what looked like Jesus, and there was a man at the door wearing a monk’s robe and a wooden crucifix with a Star of David on it.

I’ve always had a strong visceral negative reaction to Messianic Judaism – I call it “so-called” because I don’t consider it Judaism at all. It’s just not Jewish to pray to Jesus as the messiah and son of God. It added insult to injury to find it in a place where Jews had a long relatively peaceful history, until they were expelled.

Awe, Dismay and Hope at Sagrada Familia

In Barcelona our hotel was steps from what had been the Jewish quarter and we saw a very small but nice exhibit at what had been the “Sinagoga Major.” But I have to say the highlight of our stay in Barcelona was a tour of the Sagrada Familia, the cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi. The cathedral is famous for still being under construction after almost 100 years. But the interior is completed, and it is simply awesome, a vast stark space with an incredibly tall ceiling, beautiful stained glass in abstract patterns, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Creative Commons

The cathedral has two finished facades, one about the birth of Jesus designed by Gaudi himself, and one about the death of Jesus designed by Josep Luis Sert – which is where the dismay happened. Our guide gave an excellent tour, but at the end, when he was explaining what the sculptures depict, he said the Pontius Pilate looks disappointed, resting his chin on his hand, because he asked “the Jews” what they wanted to do and “the Jews” wanted Jesus crucified.

When the tour ended I approached the guide and said I thought what he said was contrary to the Catholic church’s changed doctrine that no longer blames “the Jews” for killing Jesus. He said he was aware of the doctrine, asked if we were Jewish and said he was glad we were there, and agreed to change his wording. That made me feel hopeful.

Jewish History in Girona

We went to Girona, again specifically to see a Jewish museum – the Museu d’Historia dels Jueus. This one was an excellent exhibit – including explanations in English. When we left my wife, who converted after thirty years of marriage, said something about not having realized the depth of the discrimination the Jews of Spain suffered and how awful the forced conversion, expulsion, and subsequent Inquisition must have been. She was upset. It wasn’t new to me – I’ve known the basic history for a long time – and I didn’t have that emotional reaction.

But it made me wonder what role Jewish history plays and will play in the future with interfaith families. I think some Jews are motivated to engage in Jewish traditions in part because Jews did so in the past in the face of a long history of persecutions, and I think that will continue to be true in the future. But I think that partners from different faith backgrounds can also find that history compelling and feel the same motivation. There has to be something very valuable and powerful about Jewish traditions for people to have maintained them in the face of tremendous adversity.

I was very moved by one panel about “the Jewish family” in the fifteenth century. Even though its description of the roles of the father and the mother were very old-fashioned (what you would expect about the fifteenth century), when it said the children “are taught the customs and history of their people” – I thought that was timeless, and still important, including and perhaps especially for interfaith families.