Beyond Welcoming? Not So Fast

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(This op-ed originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy and is reprinted with permission. It also appeared on j. The Jewish News of Northern California under the title “Welcome mat for interfaith families needs more unrolling.”)

The Cohen Center at Brandeis has released two extremely important studies. Beyond Welcoming: Engaging Intermarried Couples in Jewish Life, based on a large survey of inmarried and intermarried couples, aims to “identify the critical levers for promoting meaningful Jewish involvement by young intermarried couples.” We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come To It, a qualitative study, addresses the life stages and needs of interfaith couples.

The research confirms that interfaith couples and families, as a group, are less Jewishly engaged than those who are inmarried. Thankfully, there is no hint of criticism of interfaith couples, or of Jews who intermarry, or any recommendation to try to discourage or prevent interfaith marriage. The conclusions of the research are all designed to respond proactively – to identify policy and program initiatives to engage more young intermarried couples.

Len Saxe, writing in the Jerusalem Post, summarizes the research in two points. I wholeheartedly agree with the first, that “Jewish education and community building… should be the response to the challenges posed by intermarriage.” I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendations to use a “more comprehensive, life-span developmental approach;” to develop “effective strategies to introduce intermarried families to [Jewish] settings and offer them opportunities to participate” including “non-religious entry points” and in order to “build the Jewish social capital of children and teens;” to make community building “integral to all programming targeted at young couples;” to take advantage of cross-generational engagement; and to focus on Jewish fathers in interfaith couples.

The recommendations in the We’ll Cross That Bridge study are particularly apt: to focus on building small communities of couples and families, and to offer not only integrated programs but also specialized opportunities where interfaith couples can talk with peers and “discuss and have examples for what their future family might look like.”

But Saxe’s second point, that “we have succeeded in making intermarried families feel welcome,” and the study’s heading that “Barriers to Engagement with Jewish Life Have Been Largely Eliminated,” are premature declarations of victory.

There is much to celebrate in the Beyond Welcoming study’s results. It is great news that “Most Jewish parents were very accepting of their children’s non-Jewish partners, as were most non-Jewish parents of their children’s Jewish partners.” It is great news that “In premarital discussions about what role religion would play in their future household, most Jewish+non-Jewish couples agreed on most issues and did not feel they made a lot of compromises.”

It is also great news that only 3% of interfaith couples “sought out a rabbi or cantor but were unable [to] find one who would agree to officiate.” But it’s not great news that 49% never considered having a Jewish officiant, and another 17% considered it but didn’t contact one. Of course, some of those couples had no interest in having a Jewish officiant. But how many didn’t consider it, or didn’t contact one, because they anticipated rejection?

As the We’ll Cross That Bridge study notes, finding a rabbi to officiate a wedding can serve as an entrée into Jewish community for interfaith couples, and “the experiences surrounding the search… sometimes influenced couples’ opinions of the Jewish community and how welcome they could expect to feel.” Facilitating positive experiences in those searches remains critically important.

Finally, it is also great news that the majority of young intermarried couples felt welcome in the Jewish community. Among interfaith couples, 33% of the Jewish partners and 42% of the partners from different faith backgrounds feel completely welcome in Jewish settings without qualification, compared to 62% of inmarried couples.

But the Beyond Welcoming study itself notes that respondents in interfaith couples who did not feel completely welcome “emphasized their feelings of being ‘other’ and not fitting in.” As one partner from a different faith tradition said, “I feel accepted into [my partner’s Jewish] family, but I am uncertain of how much this brings me into the folds of the Jewish community at large.”

Moreover, the We’ll Cross That Bridge study raises questions about the degree of success in making interfaith couples feel welcome. It recognizes the distinction between feeling welcomed as a guest and included as a member of the group:

In some cases, despite the initial welcome by a congregation, couples felt an undercurrent of disapproval or being treated as outsiders rather than as integral and valued members of the community. Some couples recounted being regularly welcomed when they attended activities at a synagogue but never really progressing to feel like they belonged in the community. Couples were also aware that some liberal denominations were more accepting of intermarried couples….

One of the couples interviewed actually defined feeling welcomed in terms of inclusion – as being “treated very equally as members of the community… that is really, really important to the fact that we feel at home here.” And while many of the couples interviewed “described being warmly welcomed by Jewish institutions,” one expressed being pleasantly surprised, suggesting that some couples still anticipate unwelcoming responses.

Couples who did not feel welcomed expressed several concerns that remain frontier issues in efforts to be inclusive. Some were offended by language that suggested that intermarriage is a “challenge” or that they are a “problem.” One said that while “the leaders of synagogues are great… it’s the people who are affiliated… who are not particularly welcoming.” Others expressed concern that if they decided to include both religions in their home life and identification, they would not be fully accepted. One felt the way the Conservative movement treats interfaith families was a “problem.”

The Beyond Welcoming study’s conclusion, that “the challenge going forward is to create access points that spark curiosity and enthusiasm about Jewish engagement,” is extremely important, and I hope that challenge will attract the extensive philanthropic support it deserves. But that conclusion, standing alone, is incomplete. There is still a great deal of work to be done to create an environment where interfaith couples and families really are welcomed, let alone fully included.

Having It Both Ways?

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Steven Bayme, the national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at AJC, recently asked: “Jewish and Christian: Can One Have It Both Ways?” Writing about David Brooks, who describes himself as both a Jew and a Christian, Bayme says that identifying as both Jewish and Christian, or raising children to identify as both Jewish and Christian, challenges Jewish survivalism and continuity.

As I explain in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, if asked, I would advise interfaith couples to choose one religious identification for their children, while honoring and exposing the children to the other faith tradition in the family if they desire to do so. While acknowledging reasonable contrary arguments – especially those of Susan Katz Miller, who is getting a lot of favorable comment for her new book, The Interfaith Family Journal, I conclude that it is best to ground children in one religious identity, that being both risks forcing uncomfortable choices between parents later on, and that there are theological incompatibilities in being both.

But I hasten to add that my advice doesn’t matter to those interfaith couples who want to raise their children as “both,” and that their participation in Jewish life and community should be encouraged, not barred, because more people “doing Jewish” is valuable in itself, and may result in more Jewish identification, leading to more engagement, as well. It’s presumptuous for Bayme to conclude that “failure to chose one faith exclusively is a prescription for theological blandness.”

In the old debate over interfaith marriage I invariably disagreed with Bayme’s views. He continues to express a desire for an ethnic-based, socially exclusivist Judaism as well as criticism of interfaith marriage. He says that “historically, Jews have known what they were not… Christianity constituted the ultimate boundary.” But contemporary Jews will be attracted to Jewish life because of its intrinsic value, not because of what it is not. Bayme refers favorably to “a distinctive Jewish people” and says that “transmitting Jewish identification to future generations requires an unambiguous Jewish identity.” These formulations fail to come to grips with the realities of how interfaith families engage Jewishly today, and are themselves detrimental to Jewish survivalism and continuity.

In Radical Inclusion I argue that instead of a Judaism that is for the Jewish “people” only, where what matters is “being” Jewish, where Jews are “in” and “others” are “out,” we need a Judaism that is for the “community” of those who are “doing Jewish” – including partners from different faith traditions  who are not Jewish themselves. In such a radically inclusive Jewish community, more interfaith families will chose to identify their families and children as Jewish, while finding meaning and learning much from Christian and other faith traditions.

Moving from Welcoming and Hospitality, to Inclusion

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When asked in a recent interview what’s new and different about my arguments in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I pointed to my emphasis on the need to adapt the fundamental attitudes and underlying philosophies Jews have about interfaith marriage.

I’d like to expand on that answer. There is a progression from the essential, but by themselves insufficient, stages of welcoming and hospitality, to inclusion, as leaders in the fields of LGBTQ, people of color and people with disabilities inclusion, both in and outside of the Jewish world, have explained. Inclusion requires an examination and adaptation of underlying attitudes towards those to be included, and adaptive change in both those to be included and the established system with which they engage.

The best explanation I’ve seen of this progression is by David Brubaker of Congregational Consulting Group, Beyond Hospitality to Inclusion. What Brubaker says about congregations is equally applicable to families, other organizations and communities:

A hospitable congregation welcomes visitors in formal and informal ways, showing visitors that existing members are glad that they’ve come. Handshakes are offered and introductions made, and (when the hospitality is genuine) the visitor leaves feeling that his or her presence was truly appreciated.

…. [G]enuine inclusion is something else altogether. Having been welcomed into a congregation offers no assurance that a visitor will also be fully included. While hospitality is generally extended to visitors, inclusion is a much deeper form of acceptance. Warm hospitality may entice me to give the congregation a second visit. But only genuine inclusion will convince me to remain part of the community. I will stay if I feel I truly belong. (emphasis added) … We are quick to welcome but slow to include.

Hospitality requires no adaptation on the part of the congregation. (Friendliness and welcoming, yes, but no deep change.) Inclusion is quite different. When a congregation begins to integrate people from a racial group or socio-economic status different from its own dominant culture, it usually must adapt its way of being to be genuinely inclusive. Modes of worship may need to broaden. Methods of decision-making may need to change. And interaction patterns among members may need to evolve…. New ideas will stretch the prevailing doctrines and new energies will stress the existing systems.

Inclusion is not assimilation. Inclusion is an adaptive process whereby the newcomers adopt many of the ways of the established group, while at the same time the established culture stretches and evolves to reflect the gifts and needs of the newcomers.

The key lesson from Brubaker’s analysis is that genuine inclusion of interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions in Jewish families, organizations and communities requires that they feel that they truly belong – and that requires adaptive change to new ways of being that stretches both sides in the process.

But what is necessary for interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions to feel that they truly belong? Paraphrasing the Religious Institute (in the context of LGBTQ inclusion), interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions need to be “made to feel like they are part of the family. That is the goal of full inclusion – to make [them] full members of the faith community, with full opportunities to participate and equal responsibilities to serve.”

That is consistent with how I describe radical inclusion: adapting attitudes such that interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions are regarded and treated as equal to inmarried couples and Jews. Similarly, in the context of disabilities inclusion, the Ruderman Foundation seeks “to raise awareness of disability inclusion and impact widespread social attitudes toward people with disabilities.” Ruderman aims to shift views of disability from a matter of charity, to a matter of civil rights; radical inclusion aims to shift views of interfaith couples and partners from sub-optimal to equal.

One essential step in making people feel they belong is talking about them. Paraphrasing Be’chol Lashon, a leader in the field of Jews of Color inclusion, “Jews … tend to avoid talking about interfaith marriage. Interfaith marriage remains the proverbial ‘elephant in the room,’ miring Jewish organizations in institutional inertia.” Again paraphrasing the Religious Institute, “Turning welcome into inclusion is an ongoing commitment to recognize the lives and experiences of interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions. Deliberate action and vocal advocacy – ACTING. OUT. LOUD. – mark the difference between welcome and full inclusion.” In Radical Inclusion I address many of the adaptive changes in policies and programs that will follow once new inclusive attitudes are adopted.

I often hear people say that their organization or their movement is already sufficiently welcoming of interfaith families. But as the Religious Institute noted in the context of LGBTQ inclusion, there is “a tendency toward complacency among many congregations once the rainbow banner is unfurled…. [M]any clergy and congregants consider LGBT inclusion a ‘non-issue’ because ‘everyone knows we’re welcoming.’”

Brubaker concludes that “while hospitality is important and wonderful, genuine inclusion is foundational to congregational vitality. No congregation can grow without being both hospitable and inclusive…. [T]he alternative to genuine inclusion is inevitable decline. Congregations that refuse to include new people along with their new ways of being (emphasis in original) will inevitably discover that new people have no desire to affiliate.” That’s what’s new about radical inclusion, and why it is so important.

The Lesson of Passover: The Jewish holiday reminds us to love and embrace the stranger

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This essay originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is reprinted with permission.

The enduring legacy of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which started April 19, is an obligation that appears in different formulations in the Hebrew Bible 36 times, more than any other – essentially, “you shall love [the stranger] as yourself, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34)

This and other lessons of Passover, like the importance of teaching children about their family’s traditions, and the obligation to feed the hungry and to help liberate all who are oppressed, are distinctive Jewish expressions of universal values shared by all groups in our larger societies.

Sadly, in our larger societies we too often witness expressions not of love, but of hate for the “other,” in the extreme with the massacres of Jews in Pittsburgh and of Muslims in New Zealand, as well as ongoing discrimination against African-Americans and LGBTQ people. One wonders what can be done to elevate love for the stranger, over hate.

Perhaps lessons can be drawn from the Jewish community’s evolving response to interfaith marriage, a phenomenon that has challenged the fundamental Jewish sensibility to love the stranger, with interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions often made to feel excluded from the Jewish group and sub-optimal.

All groups have boundaries that define who the people in the group are and what they do. Historically, the Jewish group consisted of Jews, who followed Jewish rituals, customs and traditions. People who were not Jews, unless they converted, were not permitted to engage in Jewish traditions – or did not want to.

The dramatic rise of interfaith marriage changes all of this; the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans reported that between 2000 and 2013, 72% of non-Orthodox Jews who married, chose to love a partner from a different faith background. Now there are many people from different faith traditions, partnered with Jews, who want to engage in Jewish life. Indeed, the future of liberal Jewish rituals, customs and traditions depends on more of these people who are not Jews, doing Jewish.

Traditionally, the Jewish communal response was to disapprove of, discourage, and try to prevent interfaith marriage; if that failed, conversion to Judaism was the desired “solution” to the “problem,” with the partners shedding their status as strangers.

Over time, many Jews and Jewish organizations came to understand that if they wanted to see more people engaged in Jewish life and community, they needed to welcome interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions. But negative attitudes persist, with interfaith marriage still regarded as wrong, and partners from different faith traditions as undesirable. The same Pew study found that only 54% of interfaith couples attended Passover seders, compared to 91% of Jewish-Jewish couples.

In Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I argue that engaging interfaith families Jewishly requires inclusion, which goes beyond welcoming. Attitudes that disfavor interfaith marriage and policies that restrict partners from different faith traditions from full participation in Jewish life are not inclusive. If partners from different faith traditions are regarded as and made to feel “other” and excluded, they will be disinclined to engage in Jewish traditions. If they are regarded as “part of” and made to feel included, they will. Loving the stranger, in the context of interfaith marriage, means embracing both members of interfaith couples as members of the Jewish group, equal to inmarried couples and Jews.

This is radical, because it stands the traditional understanding that what matters is being Jewish, as opposed to doing Jewish, on its head. It challenges the deeply-held preference of many Jews that their children marry other Jews. But a boundaried Judaism for Jews only is alienating to the vast majority of liberal Jews who do intermarry, to their partners, and to their families. Radical inclusion is the next, necessary step in the adaptation of the Jewish communal response to interfaith marriage from the negative to the positive, aligning with the core value of loving the stranger.

What lessons might be drawn to other examples of marginalization? As I write in Radical Inclusion, behaviors flow from fundamental attitudes. Adopting “love the stranger as yourself” as a primary attitude is a necessary first step.

It is inconceivable that people for whom loving the stranger is a primary value would express or engage in discrimination based on the religion, race, or sexual orientation of others. A Methodist minister who described herself as queer was recently quoted as saying, about the current split in the denomination over LGBTQ acceptance, “it’s very hard to be in a relationship with people who say you are incompatible with Scripture.” Extremist religious views cannot be viable where loving the stranger is primary.

Ultimately, to see more people more engaged in Jewish life and community, the Jewish communal response to interfaith marriage has had to evolve from a position of enforcing boundaries that keep those others out, towards radical inclusion that regards them as equal.  If that response continues to evolve, Jews may see closer to 90% of interfaith couples attending Passover seders in the future. Similarly, to see all people have opportunities to flourish in just societies, any nation or group needs to evolve, from negative attitudes and policies that marginalize others, towards radically inclusive attitudes and policies that regard them as equal. This radical inclusion is consistent with love for the stranger, Passover’s enduring legacy for everyone.

What’s Radical About Radical Inclusion?

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This essay originally appeared in JTA (under the title “Passover’s Real Message Is about Celebrating Interfaith Families”) and is reprinted with permission.

The enduring lesson of Passover is the obligation that appears 36 times in the Torah, more than any other – “you shall love [the stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

Traditional Jewish attitudes that view interfaith marriage as wrong — with the implication that those from different faith traditions are not worthy marriage partners — challenge that basic Jewish sensibility, leaving interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions feeling not loved but excluded.

This Passover, if trends continue, slightly more than half of interfaith couples will attend a seder (the 2013 Pew Report found that 54 percent did). It’s clear to me, based on my experience, that many couples who do attend do not feel excluded — they make the choice not to go for reasons intrinsic to their own lives. These reasons may include Jewish partners who themselves lack familiarity or experience with seders.

Still other couples who don’t attend understand that their participation is desired, as many Jews and Jewish organizations do strive to be welcoming.

But inclusion of interfaith couples requires more than just welcoming them. Attitudes that discourage interfaith marriage and policies that restrict partners from different faith traditions from full participation in Jewish life are not inclusive. Loving the stranger, in the context of interfaith marriage, means embracing both members of interfaith couples as members of the Jewish group equal to inmarried couples and Jews.

True inclusion is radical, and radical inclusion is hard. It stands the traditional understanding that Judaism is for Jews only — that what matters is being Jewish — on its head. It challenges the deeply held preference of many Jews that their children marry other Jews. But a Judaism for Jews only is alienating to the vast majority of liberal Jews who do intermarry, to their partners and to their families.

Traditionally, there was no distinction between being Jewish and doing Jewish — there were only Jews, an ethnic, socially exclusivist group who followed Jewish rituals, customs and traditions. But in 2013, the Pew Survey of American Jews found that 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying. There now are many people from different faith traditions partnered with Jews who want to (or might want to) engage in Jewish life. The future of liberal Jewish life depends on more of these people who are not Jews doing Jewish. If they continue to be regarded as and made to feel other and excluded, they won’t.

Conversion, while a wonderful personal choice to be celebrated, cannot be viewed as the desired result in interfaith marriages — partners from different faith traditions need to feel that they are loved just the way they are.

In the traditional reading, Jewish peoplehood extends only to born Jews and those who convert. Peoplehood is both the source of the traditional Jewish attitudes that disfavor interfaith marriage and what makes it hard for partners from different faith traditions to feel a sense of belonging in Jewish communities.

In a radically inclusive perspective, the Jewish covenant is between not God and the Jews but God and all those who were assembled at Mount Sinai, a multitude that included “the stranger in the midst of your camp” (Deuteronomy 29:9-12). Today, that multitude includes people who are doing Jewish, no matter what faith they were born into.

A radically inclusive perspective focuses not on the Jewish people but on the Jewish community – “the entire community of the children of Israel” (Leviticus 19:2). Identifying as a Jew motivates Jewish engagement, so identity remains important for Jews and is desirable for the children of interfaith couples; some partners from different faith traditions may come to identify as Jews. But partners who do Jewish while continuing to identify with another faith must be fully included as part of the Jewish community.

Radical inclusion permits full participation, with the answer to all questions about “who can do what” guided by what will open doors to Jewish engagement. Partners from different faiths who are doing Jewish should be allowed, indeed encouraged, to lead prayers that refer to us, including the Torah blessings.

Interfaith couples should be able to easily find rabbis who will officiate their weddings without imposing conditions, and co-officiate their weddings with clergy of other faiths. People in interfaith relationships should be admitted and ordained by rabbinic seminaries, as intermarried rabbis would be the ultimate role model for interfaith couples’ Jewish engagement. Interfaith couples who say they are raising their children “both” should not be turned away from Jewish organizations, including religious schools.

Expressing a preference that our children marry Jews conveys a message that partners from different faiths and interfaith relationships are suboptimal. That risks alienating those who do intermarry, as so many will. We cannot prefer inmarriage and be as radically inclusive as we need to be.

Adopting radically inclusive attitudes and policies at Passover and year round is a concrete way to actualize Passover’s enduring lesson to love the stranger, and will increase the chance of seeing our children, and even more important our grandchildren, Jewishly engaged.

Positive Messaging About Interfaith Families

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This essay originally appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy and is reprinted with permission.

On the eve of the Jewish Funders Network 2019 Conference, what priority is being given to efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly? Judging by recent messaging sent by the organized Jewish community on a national level, we are failing to address the reality of interfaith marriage. Interfaith couples and the partners from different faith traditions are largely disregarded, absent from the discussion.

At the end of January an email from the Jewish Federations of North America’s new board chair announced “a marquis collective impact initiative focused on engaging the next generations of Jews with Jewish life and community.” The new study on the groundbreaking work being done with the Federations’ investments in Jewish education and engagement is an excellent presentation on the value of Jewish engagement, focusing on goals of Jewish education, including introducing people to Jewish life and community, helping them understand the relevance of Jewish tradition to their lives, helping them to build a better world, and more.

But there was no mention of the interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions to whom these goals are or can be relevant. None of the federations’ funding appears explicitly to be going to programmatic efforts designed for interfaith families; 25% is going to day schools and the balance to “teens’ experiences, adult learning, Hillel and other campus programs, family engagement, synagogues and camps, the inclusion of those with special needs, welcoming newcomers to communities, and much, much more.” When interfaith marriage appears in the presentation, it’s a negative: “With a high intermarriage rate outside of Orthodoxy, and with the children of intermarried families now themselves intermarrying, we don’t know what the future of Judaism will be. There is uncertainty….”

The presentation does acknowledge that “for some,” Jewish education is now addressing “what does it mean to live all of my religious and ethnic identities – where does being Jewish fit in?” But it does not say explicitly and emphatically, as it could, that with 72% of non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying, Jewish education efforts need to prioritize reaching, attracting and engaging interfaith families.

One of the comments to the presentation says, “My great concern and nightmare is that we build a wonderful education system but way too few Jewish children enter it.” It’s time to unapologetically state that the source of more families and children for Jewish education has got to be interfaith families.

In the middle of February, the Reform movement’s Department of Audacious Hospitality announced a new podcast, “Wholly Jewish.” The first installment is a very moving story of a man raised in a Christian family who embraced Judaism as an adult. This excellent podcast will very appropriately highlight that Jews encompass many different ethnicities, cultures, perspectives, and gender and sexual identities, that these multi-faceted identities strengthen and enrich our Jewishness, and that the diversity of our community should be honored and celebrated.

But again, although the podcast is inspired by “commitment to embracing our differences” and seeks “to honor the entirety of our diverse and beautiful community” and says “we must take seriously the voices and perspectives of all our communities’ members” (emphasis in the original), interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions are not mentioned.

Instead of saying “We acknowledge and appreciate … the contributions to our sacred tapestry that Jews from innumerable backgrounds have made and continue to make to this day,” it would be so much more inclusive to refer to the contributions that Jews and their partners have made and continue to make.

Fortunately, some more positive messages can be found on the individual and local level. Conservative rabbi Harry Pell, writing about the future of non-Orthodox day schools, recently asked “how might day schools appeal to [multi-faith] families as a compelling setting in which to provide their children with both a Jewish and secular education?” Reform rabbi Micah Streiffer, coming from traditionally less-inclusive Canada, recently wrote that “Intermarried Families Are Also Jewish Families.”

One of my own rabbis, Allison Berry, at last Friday evening Shabbat services, in lieu of translating “ohev amo Yisrael” with the prayerbook’s “who loves your people Israel,” instead said “who loves all of us, Israel” – phrasing designed to make everyone in the congregation, including the partners from different faith traditions, feel included.

Perhaps most hopefully, the Atlanta federation is partnering with InterfaithFamily to offer The Interchange, convening professionals, lay leaders, clergy and funders to promote interfaith family engagement. InterfaithFamily has also launched the first cohort of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellows to build a network of rabbis equipped to work with interfaith families. These announcements combine positive messages with concrete efforts towards engaging interfaith families.

Messages, of course, reflect underlying attitudes. In my new book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I argue that everything follows from attitudes; if more policy makers and funders adopted positive attitudes towards interfaith marriage, we would then see inclusive policies that invite participation by interfaith families, and the kind of massive concerted communal effort to engage them that is needed.

I continue to hope for broad-based advocacy in favor of a positive response to interfaith marriage, with messaging that unmistakably and confidently conveys that we are eager to include interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions in Jewish life and community.

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.

Year-end Round-up

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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

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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.

Let’s Talk About Ahavat Ger, Relating to the Other

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Reprinted with permission from eJewishPhilanthropy

Over the past two years, I have increasingly felt that the Jewish community, in addition of course to addressing pressing external issues, needs to also focus inwardly on engaging more interfaith families, something that is essential if liberal Judaism is to thrive in the future. Engaging interfaith families should be seen as an expression of the cardinal Jewish sensibility of ahavat ger, usually interpreted as “welcoming the stranger.”

Welcoming the stranger doesn’t mean eliminating distinctive identities, an issue of concern to many Jews. Recently, Daniel Drezner wrote in the Washington Post that not all “forms of identity are defined in the exclusion of the other”; the root of community can come “not from exclusion but from a shared sense of meaning.” “American,” for example, is an identity based on a sense of meaning shared by Jews and people of all religions, of all races, with different sexual preferences and abilities – and not in conflict with those identities.

The concept of defining community not by exclusion of the other but by shared meaning is a helpful framework for understanding the obstacles as well as the opportunities for engaging interfaith families.

Much of the Jewish response to intermarriage has been not to welcome the stranger, but to exclude as “other” partners from different faith traditions, and the children of interfaith couples. I think of obstacles to engagement such as the ongoing controversy in the Conservative movement over officiation for interfaith couples; statements from Israel describing intermarriage as a “plague”; a recent renewed suggestion that interfaith families celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas amounts to religious syncretism; and another recent renewed suggestion that it’s possible to encourage endogamy without alienating people who are intermarrying.

But like “American,” we could define “member of the Jewish community” as including both people who identify as Jews, as well as their partners from different faith traditions who engage in Jewish life with them, thereby demonstrating a shared sense of meaning, without identifying as Jews themselves. Failing to do so is a recipe for loss and diminishment.

Consider the potential for growth and enrichment expressed in these two stories of partners from different faith traditions in response to the Pittsburgh tragedy:

  • Robyn Martin, an African-American Catholic woman, who with her Jewish wife is keeping a Jewish home and raising a Jewish son, felt fiercely protective “of my Jewish family and of my entire Jewish community.”
  • Cindy Skrzycki, the Catholic wife of David Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, when asked her reaction as a Catholic, said “I don’t think I viewed this as a Catholic. I have been deeply marinated in Judaism… I love both traditions. … Judaism has been a central theme in our family.”

Here are two partners from different faith traditions who have been embraced by Jewish communities and feel a shared sense of meaning with members of those communities – “marinated in Judaism” without identifying as Jewish themselves – and who are raising or raised Jewish children (one of Skrzycki’s daughters is in rabbinical school).

What does it mean to include the other in a community based on a shared sense of meaning? It means more than welcoming the stranger, politely inviting observation and limited participation in the community’s activities. I believe that effectively engaging interfaith families requires extending the concept of ahavat ger to a position of radical inclusion of the other.

Radical inclusion means thinking of and treating interfaith couples as fully equal to inmarried couples, and partners from different faith backgrounds and the children of interfaith couples as fully equal to Jews. That is “radical” because it stands on their head traditional tribal and insular Jewish attitudes that privilege Jews and inmarriage and regard partners from different faith traditions and intermarriage as other and sub-optimal.

Radical inclusion means adopting policies flowing from inclusive attitudes, in areas including wedding officiation, recognition of patrilineal Jews, ritual participation and the like, that allow the full participation of interfaith families in Jewish life and community, in contrast to traditional policies that restrict full participation to Jews only.

Rabbi Noa Kushner recently referred to “the Jews and those of us who do Jewish with us.” Mark Sokoll, executive director of the JCC in Boston, recently said “The idea of community in Jewish tradition is defined by expansive inclusivity, embracing every voice in the chorus for the music to truly rise all the way to the Divine.” (emphasis in original) We need to see many more of these kinds of explicit statements that reflect radically inclusive attitudes.

Jewish leaders are not explicitly addressing the need to engage interfaith families, or how to do so, nearly enough. But we need to talk about it. That is the motivation for the launch of the new Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, which will engage in advocacy writing and speaking in favor of radically inclusive attitudes and policies, as well as programmatic efforts designed to engage interfaith families. The Center will partner with other organizations, initially with InterfaithFamily, and build a broad-based alliance of progressive Jewish leaders to join in designing and implementing the advocacy efforts and promoting radical inclusion. To explore participating in these efforts, please Connect with the Center.