A New Year Begins – with a Very Important Development

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2019 is off to an interesting start. I was pleased to see that the fourth of my friend Seth Cohen’s  “Seven Predictions for the Year Ahead” was “radical inclusivity” – a very nice lead in to my new book, titled Radical Inclusion! I agree with Seth’s assessment (see my bolding below) and hope his prediction turns out to be accurate:

While awareness of engaging the full range of the identity the Jewish community has (importantly) grown this past year, one cannot help but feel we continue to substantially fall short. No doubt there are significant philanthropic resources being contributed to fostering inclusivity, yet it feels like we still haven’t hit the tipping point of an inclusive communal mindset. I predict in 2019 we do hit a tipping point where there is a much greater focus (and funding) on how we embrace individuals with diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds, different gender and physical/ability identities, and multi-faith identities. If nothing else, because failing to do so is one of the greatest risks of 2019.

When I saw the title “Jewish Preschools Should Embrace 100% of Families,” I thought I’d find an inclusive statement that interfaith families are among those groups that Jewish preschools should embrace. But there wasn’t a mention of them – a classic example of a not inclusive communal mindset that is still too common.

In my book I describe three invitations that could be extended to interfaith families to engage in Jewish life, in terms of “what’s in it for them.” Philip Graubart’s very interesting “Jewish Day Schools and the Canary Mission” is consistent with that approach:

[I]f we really want to create a lasting, dynamic Jewish identity for American Jews, we have to show that Judaism is relevant on a day to day, deeply personal level. Most Jews won’t become activists, but everyone will lose someone they love; everyone will struggle with their conscience; everyone will crave community; everyone will celebrate, mourn, eat, drink, work. A Judaism with teachings relevant to these moments will thrive.

The first very important development of the year, though, is a Conservative synagogue board’s decision that if the Rabbinical Assembly would allow Conservative rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, they want their rabbi to do so, coupled with that rabbi, Michael Knopf’s, wonderful explanation of his own views in “Renewing Our Vows: A New Approach to Intermarriage.”

Back in 2015, I blogged about Rabbi Knopf’s “novel approach” to offer interfaith couples “compassionate and nonjudgmental support…, drawing from the riches of our tradition,” but I asked what would happen when those couples sought wedding officiation from Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Knopf now explains that he and his congregation “believe that the Conservative movement’s rule prohibiting its rabbis from officiating at intermarriages is rooted in outmoded halakhic reasoning, conclusions not corroborated by the empirical evidence, and failed strategy.”

I completely agree with Rabbi Knopf’s analysis about the importance of what I would call radical inclusion:

The exclusionary posture of the established Jewish community towards interfaith families does not only push away the Jewish partner from his or her tradition. It also prevents the partner from a different background from experiencing the beauty, richness, and joy of Judaism. But when we welcome and include intermarried couples and their families into our communities in every possible way, we substantially increase the likelihood that Judaism will remain a core part of their family’s life.

That fact – that the Jewishness of intermarried couples and their families is directly related to how much we as Jewish leaders reach out to and include them in Jewish life and community – calls upon us to reexamine our stance about the wedding ceremony itself.

What is new to me in Rabbi Knopf’s essay is his analysis of Jewish law. He writes that

The halakhic tradition recognizes that, sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. The Talmud teaches that when maintaining a prohibition would erode the Jewish people’s commitment to the tradition as a whole, even a clear biblical prohibition can be set aside. This principle is known as “hora’at sha’ah,” the demands of the moment.

He concludes that “present circumstances warrant invoking the ‘hora’at sha’ah’ principle with respect to intermarriage, overturning rabbinic precedent” that prohibits it – not under all circumstances, but “when a couple affirms Judaism will be the sole religion practiced in their household and that any children produced by the union will be raised as Jews.”

There is a lot more in Rabbi Knopf’s essay that is worth reading. He says he published it “in the hope that my argument might encourage my colleagues and other Conservative congregations to follow suit.” With more young progressive Conservative rabbis leaving the movement, and the phenomenon of interfaith couples seeking rabbinic officiation continuing to grow, I hope his colleagues do find it persuasive.

More Negative, More Positive

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

Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Book

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

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

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

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

Conservative Movement

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

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

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

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

Ignorant of Intermarriage? Ignoring Intermarriage?

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

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

Passover and Easter 2018

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

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

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

More Conservative News

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

Intermarriage and Jewish Philanthropy

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

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

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

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

Variations on Inclusion

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

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

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

But Graubart says his father did not go far enough:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other news, you might want to see:

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

Letters in the Scroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objective Social Science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conservative Officiation Debate Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.  

 

Widely Diverse Views: Passover, Officiation, Selling Judaism

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Attitudes about intermarriage – and Jewish “stuff” in general – seem so far apart at times, are we riding on the same bus?

Passover

Here’s a timely example, with Passover approaching. The Boston Jewish Advocate is owned by Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff, a Hassidic rebbe. His wife writes a weekly column, Ask the Rebbetzin. In the March 24, 2017 issue, someone asked if a Christian friend who is curious about Judaism could attend her Passover seder. The Rebbetzin said that many rabbinic authorities say that “it is not appropriate (and many say forbidden) to have non-Jews at the Pesach Seder.”

Twelve years ago, in April 2005, I wrote a letter to the editor saying I was mortified when the Rebbe made the same statement in the same newspaper. I asked whether he meant to suggest that intermarried parents from different faith backgrounds should be exiled from their own families’ seders, and questioned how many of those parents would want to raise their children with Judaism if Jewish leaders took that position.

This time around I had a respectful email exchange with the Rebbetzin. She explained that traditional Halachah (Jewish law) states that people who are not Jewish should not participate in the seder; that traditionally observant Jews are bound to follow it whether they agree or not; and that others may take a different approach.

I want to be respectful, and I’m in no position to say that members of a Hassidic community should welcome people who are not Jewish to their seders. But on the other hand, when Jewish leaders from that kind of community make a statement in the broader Jewish community that would serve to repel intermarried parents from Jewish life, it contributes to a general negative attitude about intermarriage that isn’t helpful.

At perhaps the other extreme, I loved Kate Bigam’s piece on ReformJudaism.org, Our Non-Traditional, Interfaith Seder: A Little Creativity and a Lot of Love, about her preparations for her first seder with her soon-to-be husband, who grew up Catholic. She wanted to “show him a good one” and focused on assembling what goes on the seder plate; then he arrived with a beautiful seder plate as a gift (shades of the famous O. Henry story The Gift of the Magi). They enjoyed working through the haggadah, but as she hadn’t prepared dinner, they planned to go to a taco place to eat, but ended up at a Thai restaurant instead. I loved her conclusion:

Traditionalists will say we didn’t do Passover right, and maybe that’s true. My Judaism is not perfect, but it’s genuine and passionate and important to me, even when I get a little creative about it. I’ll always remember Mike’s and my first seder together, and I look forward to many more to come.

I had to wonder what the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin would say about that non-traditional seder! There is something core about the seder ritual and more fundamentally about the meaning of the holiday to which both the Rebbetzin and Kate Bigam are very dedicated, but circling around that core are very divergent approaches. It’s easy to say that because they are in such different communities that are so far apart, it doesn’t matter what they think of each other. But I would like to hope that the Rebbe and Rebbetzin could respect the non-traditional approach the way I try to respect their traditional one; that would mean being more careful about statements they make to the broad Jewish community.

Officiation, and Conservative Judaism

Last week I blogged about the Conservative movement allowing synagogues to allow people who are not Jewish to be members, with a reference to the relatively new and apparently increasing discussion among Conservative rabbis about changing the prohibition against their officiating for interfaith couples. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a thoughtful and highly-regarded Conservative rabbi, has weighed in with To Officiate or Not at Intermarriages. Rabbi Cosgrove reveals that there was a “special off-the-record session” at the recent convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbis’ association) indicating that “as a movement we clearly are squirming.” I have good reason to believe the session was a presentation by people from the Cohen Center at Brandeis about their game-changing study showing that interfaith couples who have a rabbi officiate have a higher rate of Jewish engagement.

Rabbi Cosgrove says that if the data shows that officiation has positive impact, and if it is not at all surprising that if rabbis turn their backs on couples the couples will turn their backs on Judaism, then the argument that Conservative rabbis should serve the couples is a forceful one. But he is not persuaded. He says couples who are pre-disposed to be engaged might be more likely to have a rabbi – but the study found that controlling for childhood Jewish background and college experiences, intermarrieds who had sole Jewish clergy officiation were still more Jewishly engaged. He says that although Jewish law “can, and oftentimes should, change,” Jewish law has the right to limit what it validates. And he says that he “unapologetically want[s] young Jews to marry other Jews;” officiation at intermarriages “send[s] the message that all choices are equal, a message that I do not think wise given the undisputed place in-marriage has as the single most important determinant in ensuring Jewish continuity.”

I respect Rabbi Cosgrove’s position but think it is misguided. Once he acknowledges that Jewish law can and oftentimes should change, it’s no longer a debate about Jewish law, it’s about the consequences of the positions taken – which brings us right back to couples turning their backs on Judaism when rabbis turn their backs on them.

Rabbi Cosgrove says he wants the Conservative movement’s message to be: we want you to marry Jews; when you don’t the path to conversion is warm and embracing and doable; if that’s not an option, we will help you build a Jewish family and future while respecting your spiritual integrity. Unfortunately this is the same message that the Conservative movement has been sending for the past twenty years, with no positive results to show. Rabbi Cosgrove says that when an intermarriage occurs, “we must be … passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Refusing to officiate seriously undermines any warm embrace. Daniel Solomon had a great story in the Forward about the Conservative movement’s recent change in membership rules, and his title says it all: Conservatives Welcome Non-Jews – But Will They Be Second-Class Citizens In the Synagogue? Solomon quotes Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as saying they wanted to “deepen the sense of welcome for those married to people of another faith,” but Solomon told me that Rabbi Wernick said the USCJ is going to be issuing guidelines that say non-Jews can’t serve on a synagogue board and the membership resolution will not change prohibitions adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly that do not allow people who are not Jewish to handle the Torah during services.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue wrote what I found to be a stunning explanation of The Power of ‘Yes’ on Interfaith Officiation. Rabbi Buchdahl did not officiate for the first ten years of her rabbinate. She learned that:

[S]aying “No” often leads to a profound alienation from the Jewish community. It pains me now, looking back, to think of the many children of my congregation who came to me with their non-Jewish partners, committed to having a Jewish home, and how I turned them away. Many of them left synagogue life permanently. I could no longer bear the hypocrisy I felt in refusing to stand with them for one of the most important days of their lives, but then inviting them to become synagogue members the next day. This could not be the right decision for our Jewish future.

Rabbi Buchdahl says she is now an “impassioned supporter of rabbinic officiation for a couple who commits to the creation of a Jewish home (the very same standard I apply when asked to officiate at a wedding between two Jews).” Rabbi Buchdahl finds power in saying “yes” in part because of the deep relationships couples build with their officiating rabbis. “Then, on their wedding day — one of the most consequential and memorable days of their lives — Jewish ritual becomes the vehicle for their transformation into a family.”

Over the years, I’ve talked to many rabbis who balked at saying the traditional phrase that consecrates a marriage, “under the laws of Moses and Israel,” for interfaith couples. But in what is to me a great advance in thinking on the issue, Rabbi Buchdahl says that “if a non-Jewish partner is willing to live in a home ‘under the laws of Moses and Israel,’ to study Jewish laws and practice, and to raise any future children as Jews, then a rabbi can consecrate that commitment with integrity.” In another great advance to my mind, she says that those who take Central Synagogue’s Exploring Judaism course, but chose not to convert, may not become “b’nai Yisrael” (children of Israel), but they become “bonei Yisrael, builders of Israel and our communities.” She says both b’nai Yisrael and bonei Yisrael are deserving of our blessing under the chuppah.

Of course there is a further end to the spectrum: some would say that officiating only when an interfaith couples commits to the creation of a Jewish home does not go far enough. Rabbi Buchdahl says that she will not “co-officiate with a leader from another faith; if the wedding is marking the end of a couple’s connection to Judaism, instead of a new beginning, then I have no proper place there.” It’s not clear that she meant that co-officiation does mark the end of a couple’s connection to Judaism, and I don’t believe that to be the case. But I’m very grateful to Rabbi Buchdahl for her thoughtful explanation of a position that I believe will clearly engage more interfaith couples in Jewish life than Rabbi Cosgrove’s.

Selling Judaism

Lastly, InterfaithFamily had a mention in the unlikely venue of BloombergBusinessweek, Selling Judaism, Religion Not Included. The article starts out with someone not Jewish celebrating Shabbat – Shabbat is “poised to become the new yoga practice.” Then it moves to Danya Shults, an intermarried Jew who started Arq, “a lifestyle company that seeks to sell people of all faiths on a trendy, tech-literate, and, above all, accessible version of Jewish traditions” that include holiday planning guides. The mention of InterfaithFamily quotes Rabbi Ari Moffic from InterfaithFamily/Chicago as saying “You can do Jewish … even if you’re not Jewish. You want to unplug? It’s called Shabbat, and we’re the experts on it.” The article also mentions Honeymoon Israel, which sends “nontraditional (interfaith, same-sex)” couples on trips to Israel. Everything is referred to as “cultural marketing.”

I’m just not sure that celebrating Shabbat and other Jewish holidays and traveling to Israel isn’t “religious,” as the article title suggests. Of course it depends on what “religious” means – and I’ll have to leave that for other posts. And I’m not saying that cultural marketing is a bad thing, far from it. To me, what related this article to the Passover and officiation issues is the very big factor of welcoming and inclusion, and those who are interested in perpetuating “religious” traditions should take notice. Because what motivated Shults and her Presbyterian husband to look for something different and to start Arq was that “We never really found a [religious] community that matched what we were looking for, especially for” him. “Many of the synagogues that purported to be inclusive turned out to have an agenda, such as trying to get [him] to convert or cultivating the couple’s political support for Israel.” We’ve got a long way to go on the welcoming and inclusion front.

Best wishes for a meaningful Passover – when, after all, we are charged to remember to welcome the stranger, because we were strangers ourselves.