Year-end Round-up

|

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

What Christmas Means to Interfaith Families

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

Conservative Movement News

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

Interfaith Families Increasingly Jewish

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

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

Reform Movement Developments

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

Mnookin Book

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

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

Young Adults

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Hanukkah and Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognition

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

Suggested Corrections

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

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

Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas

|

This essay was originally published in the Forward.

This month, many interfaith families are celebrating Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Negative, More Positive

|

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

Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Book

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

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

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

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

Conservative Movement

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the December Holidays

|

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.

Hanukkah 2010

|

Happy Hanukkah! I don’t know about you, but I am already wondering if there is any way, when I make latkes this weekend, to avoid making the entire house smell like a fryolator for several days. Do you have any suggestions?

This year I have to make a double batch. Every year we help my wife’s college roommate and her husband, among our oldest and dearest friends, decorate their Christmas tree (neither are Jewish); our gathering is early this year, so I’ll be bringing latkes to them (they love it when it’s Hanukkah so we can light our menorah with their family). The next batch is for our annual Hanukkah gathering with my parents (who are now 93 and 92, still living on their own) in Connecticut. This year I may try some latkes made of both potatoes and butternut squash. We have a lot of great recipes to choose from on the site.

I am really pleased this year with InterfaithFamily.com’s first in-house produced video, Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah. One of our long-range goals is to provide a comprehensive set of introductory “how-to-do-Jewish” resources, and we know that many people prefer to learn from video rather than or in addition to text. We hope this will be one of the first of many helpful videos. Benjamin Maron, our new managing editor, gets the writer/director/producer credit, and we want to especially thank our on-screen talent, our good friend from JewishBoston.com Liz Polay-Wettengel, and her family. They should be movie stars!

I’m also pleased that we have a new article by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, who has also made a series of videos for us, “Rabbi Reuben’s Ruminations,” professionally produced by the Jewish Television Network. I’m happy about it because there are people who say that the meaning of Hanukkah is antithetical to welcoming interfaith families to Jewish life and community. They say that Hanukkah commemorates a rebellion by the Jews against assimilation into the Hellenistic Greek society that surrounded them – and they make the common mistake of equating intermarriage with assimilation. Rabbi Reuben explains that “Jewish civilization represents a value system that declares to every single individual human being on earth, that what they say matters, and what they do matters, and who they are matters.” The Jews were resisting assimilation into a culture where “the only rule that mattered was that whoever had the most power and carried the biggest club got to make the rules,…”  a culture of bigotry and prejudice based on “might makes right.” He concludes,

Light the lights this year with pride as we continue to stand for the enduring values that celebrate the fundamental spiritual worth of every human spirit.  That is why Hanukkah continues to matter.

That’s hardly a message that is antithetical to embracing interfaith families.

Finally, we do two surveys a year, around Hanukkah and Christmas, and again around Passover and Easter. We just released the report on our seventh December Holidays Survey. Cathy Grossman blogged about our survey on her Faith & Reason blog on USAToday.com. I really respect Cathy’s writing but I’m not sure I agree with her take on our survey results this year.

Our holiday surveys have consistently focused on interfaith families that are raising their children as Jews, to illuminate how such families deal with potential conflict between Hanukkah and Christmas, and how they participate in Christmas celebrations at all. Over the years almost all of these families celebrate Hanukkah, and about half have a Christmas tree in their own home. An extremely small percentage, as low as 1%, “tell the Christmas story” – which of course is fundamentally religious in nature, and in comments our survey respondents say that Christmas doesn’t have religious significance to them, it is just a warm family time with traditions from the parent who is not Jewish. Kind of like Thanksgiving is a warm family time that isn’t religious.

The surveys have consistently shown a higher percentage of respondents who treat Hanukkah as a religious holiday. This year, for example, 55% said they would tell the Hanukkah story. When asked to rate the religious or secular nature of their holiday participation, 23% said their Hanukkah celebrations were religious and 28% said they were secular (49% said half and half), vs. 2% who said their Christmas celebrations were religious and 89% who said they were secular (only 9% said half and half). We did note in a press release that there was an increase this year from 20% to 28% who said their Hanukkah celebrations were secular, and that is what Cathy zeroes in on in her blog post.

But there was another finding noted in our press release suggesting a different trend. We saw in increase in the percentage who said they would celebrate Hanukkah in the synagogue this year, from 62% last year to 71% this year. So I don’t think it’s quite fair to suggest that the prevailing way that interfaith families raising Jewish children celebrate Hanukkah is in a secular way without religious significance. What do you think?

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Memo to Elena Kagan: Not All Jews Spend Christmas at Chinese Restaurants

|

The blogosphere is lit up with Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s response to a question at her confirmation hearing. The Washington Post reported that a senator asked, “’Christmas Day bomber. Where were you at on Christmas Day?’ Kagan … seemed confused by his query and started answering him seriously. But Graham cut her off and said, ‘No. I just asked where you were at on Christmas.’ Kagan’s response – ‘Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant’ — was brilliant in its humor, timing and the self-effacing manner in which it was delivered.”

Most of the commentary is about Kagan’s sense of humor, like that from JTA, the Jewish Week, and the Christian Science Monitor. Over at Jewcy, Jason Diamond said “a serious burst of pride shot through my being when a person who is possibly (hopefully) going to sit in the highest judicial seat in the land, made mention of one of my favorite Jewish traditions.”

I also hope that Elena Kagan is confirmed. I’m proud that she’s Jewish. I’m even proud of her association with one of my alma maters – yes, I have a degree from Harvard Law School, something I don’t ever emphasize in my current position.

But Supreme Court justices shouldn’t make factual errors, and she ought to know, and the commentators ought to know, that we are way past the time when “all Jews” are at Chinese restaurants” at Christmas. In fact, we all ought to realize that we are either at the time, or close to the time, when half of young adults who identify as Jews will have grown up participating in Christmas celebrations with their interfaith families. The Jewish partners and children in interfaith families aren’t going to Chinese restaurants for Christmas – they’re having Christmas dinner with their relatives who aren’t Jewish.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Christmas is Coming

|

December is our busiest season at InterfaithFamily.com. We’ve already had over 30,000 unique visitors to our site this month, and the most popular content is about the December holidays.

With Hanukkah over and Christmas coming this week, with many interfaith couples getting ready to celebrate Christmas and many Jews not comfortable with that, I’d like to highlight the lessons of our sixth annual December Holidays Survey. We started doing these surveys in response to a book by Sylvia Barack Fishman called Double or Nothing, where she argued that interfaith families who said they were raising their children as Jews, really weren’t, because they had Christmas trees in their homes and as a result the children turn out not to be Jewish. I felt that was a ridiculous conclusion, that she did not understand the couples she interviewed, and set out to ask our readers about their experiences.

Our respondents have been strikingly consistent over six years:  high percentages of interfaith couples raising their children as Jews participate in Christmas celebrations, close to half with Christmas trees in their own homes, but doing so in a secular, non-religious manner, and confident their children’s Jewish identity is not compromised.

This year we looked for trends in over recent years and found that more of these families were celebrating Christmas at the home of relatives (79%, up from 66% in 2007) and keeping their Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations separate (89%, up from 83% in 2007). The percentage who thought their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity increased from 73% in 2008 to 81% in 2009. In our press release announcing the survey results, I said we were seeing an increasing normalization of interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas.

Our survey has attracted a lot of publicity this year. It was featured on USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog, in Jewish papers in Cleveland and Boston, and most recently in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent’s A Merry Little Chanukah? where Aaron Passman interviewed two of the respondents to our survey. Passman quotes Steven Bayme, one of the Jewish intellectual leaders most critical of intermarriage, as saying that a Christmas tree is “suggestive of the very thin nature of the Jewish identity of the home.” But the article features the family of Dr. Andrea Kesack — they belong to a synagogue, their children go to religious school, and their oldest daughter recently became bat mitzvah. It is insulting to them — and to the thousands of families like their’s — to say that the presence of a Christmas tree in their home indicates “thin” Jewish identity, and I’ve written a letter to the editor to make that point.

Jews have the hardest time understanding that Christmas does not have any religious significance to many interfaith families. But from what we hear from many of the interfaith couples themselves, it’s really like Thanksgiving. The first time we did our survey, I was amazed at the very low percentage of interfaith couples raising Jewish children who  “tell the Christmas story.” That story is of course fundamentally religious, and the fact that this year only 4% are telling the Christmas story at home is a pretty clear indicator of the non-religious nature of these families’ celebrations.

This morning I got a Google alert of a story in a secular paper, the Monterey County Herald, titled Embracing your Inner Santa. It turned out to be an advice column by a marriage counselor, responding to someone who wanted to celebrate Christmas with her child but was getting objections from her “rigorously secular” spouse:

Most people would agree that the religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus has been significantly transformed into a secular celebration. “Holiday” parties are now the norm at most businesses. Images of starry-eyed children opening packages has become almost completely disconnected from the day’s religious meaning.

As best I can tell, neither the therapist or the couple involved were Jewish, but I wish that the therapist’s description of Christmas as a secular holiday would be taken to heart by those in the Jewish community who are uneasy about Christmas. Today, half of the young adults who identify or could identify as Jews have one Jewish parent, so most of them grew up participating in some form in Christmas celebrations. It used to be that someone who celebrated Christmas wasn’t Jewish, but that simply is no longer the case.

For those of you for whom the December holidays aren’t over — I hope you have a very happy holiday.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Jesus and Christmas

|

It’s our busiest time of year again at InterfaithFamily.com. I’m writing this on December 24th at 9:00 am — and we’ve already broken the record for the highest number of monthly unique visitors to our main website, with 30,831 so far. There is something about Hanukkah and Christmas that stirs up everything about interfaith relationships — and front and center in that swirl is Jesus.

Two weeks ago, Cathy Grossman, USA Today’s terrific religion writer, called about her December holiday story for this year. She said she was writing about the “taking Christ out of Christmas” phenomenon. In addition to the usual theories that Americans are more secular and more materialistic, she wondered if increasing intermarriage was a cause.

We did find in our fifth annual December holidays survey, as we have in prior years, that interfaith couples who are raising their children Jewish say, in high percentages, 87% this year, that their Christmas celebrations are secular. One of the most interesting statistics to me is that among that population, only 3%, as part of their celebrations, tell the Christmas story — a story which is of course fundamentally religious in nature, because it marks the birth of Jesus as the Christ, the divine savior.

Cathy asked about interfaith couples who were raising their children “both,” and raising them Christian. We had 106 couples in the survey who said they were raising their children both; of them, 23% said they tell the Christmas story — more than 3% to be sure, but not a very high percentage overall. We only had 29 couples who said they were raising their children Christian, which isn’t a very large sample on which to draw any general conclusions; of them, 45% said they tell the Christmas story — still not a majority.

To me, the relatively low percentages of couples who are raising their children partly or completely Christian and tell the Christmas story suggest that rising secularism and materialism are at the root of non-religious celebrations of Christmas. And we have to remember that even if interfaith couples raising their children as Jews do “take Christ out of Christmas” in resolving how they will celebrate the December holidays, the numbers of such couples are tiny compared to the numbers of Christian couples who are celebrating Christmas, with or without Christ. So people may continue to blame intermarriage for a lot of things, but I hope it won’t be blamed for taking Christ out of Christmas.

But if interfaith couples raising their children Jewish aren’t celebrating and telling the story of the birth of Jesus as Christ, the divine savior, do they need to completely remove Jesus from Christmas? We’ve covered the issue of talking about Jesus at InterfaithFamily.com in the past — just put “talking about Jesus” into the search box on our site. But wwo days ago, I read a wonderful op-ed on the subject by James Carroll, a wonderful author and columnist for The Boston Globe.

In Jesus and the Promise of Christmas, Carroll writes that violence was the normal condition of the world Jesus was born in, and that”acting in his Jewish tradition” he confronted and rejected it and proposed peace and justice to counter it. He continues, “The great religions of the world – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism – and the no-religion of rationalism have all countered the normalcy of violence with assertions of compassion and loving kindness.” As a figure representing the ideal of peace and justice, Carrol concludes, Jesus has survived

even for those who regard him in purely worldly terms as an image of a hope that cannot be fully articulated, and that can never be exclusively claimed by any group, including Christians. In that sense, the observances of this week can belong to everyone who chooses to enjoy them.

Perhaps that’s a way for interfaith couples raising their children to include Jesus in their Christmas celebrations.

Happy holidays to all.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.

Ron Klain, Rahm Emanuel, and the Christmas Madness

|

A story in IsraelNationalNews.com commenting on the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as President-Elect Obama’s chief of staff, and of Ron Klain as Vice President-Elect Biden’s chief of staff, leads with:

“Both appointees are Jewish, but while Emanuel is an observant Jew, Klain intermarried more than 20 years ago and his family observes Christmas.”

ronklain200This is the kind of careless comment, typical of Israeli journalists, that buys into the mistaken notion that a Jew who intermarries and whose family participates in Christmas celebrations is lost to Jewish life.

The author, Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu, could have said: “Both appointees are Jewish. Emanuel is a traditionally observant Jew. Klain intermarried more than 20 years ago and his family observes Christmas, but he and his wife raised their children as Jews.”

The author knows this, because buried at the end of the article, he cites a New York Times article which states: “He is married to a non-Jew with an agreement that they celebrate Christmas but raise their children as Jews.”

For all we know, Klain and his family belong to a synagogue and send their children to Hebrew school. Their children may already have become, or plan to become, bar or bat mitzvah.

There are thousands and thousands of intermarried parents like that — who participate in Christmas celebrations and who are raising their children as Jews. Many of them belong to synagogues, send their children to Hebrew school, and have bar and bat mitzvahs, at rates comparable to Reform in-married parents, as Boston’s most recent demographic study reports.rahmemanuel200

At InterfaithFamily.com we are completing our fifth annual December holidays survey. Thousands of respondents over the years have told us that their Christmas celebration has no religious meaning for them, that it is a way of respecting the tradition of the non-Jewish parent without compromising the Jewish identity of their children. Jewish people celebrate Christmas with Christian friends and relatives as a gesture of connection, not denial of Jewish identity.

The Jewish community ought to be just as proud of the appointment of Klain as it is of Emanuel, and not create artificial distance between Klain and the community because of his marriage.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.