May 2024 News from the Center

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After October 7

The JTA Teen Fellowship produced an excellent article, “For teens in interfaith families, the war in Gaza can be a stress test of their Jewish identities,” that describes the experiences of three Jewish teens from interfaith families. Fern Chertok, a leading researcher on interfaith families, said “[b]eing able to learn from different viewpoints is often a dividend for teens from interfaith families… They are the natural bridge builders.” Rabbi Jessica Lowenthal, who works with teens from interfaith families as director of her congregation’s religious school, made the most important point – she “doesn’t see a difference between how interfaith families or other Jewish families relate to Israel, given the disagreements and diverse upbringings among Jews.”

The JFNA staff responsible for a new JFNA survey described in eJP “newfound interest in Jewish life” after October 7, describing a “Surge” of people showing up who previously were not very engaged and who are “craving community.” The authors say this “explosive increase in interest and engagement … is an opportunity and responsibility of historic proportions;” a key response is to “increase belonging,” more training in relational engagement for staff and volunteers, more notice and welcome of everyone. So far, no data has been released on whether the Jewish engagement of Jewish respondents was affected by how their partners who are not Jewish feel in Jewish settings.

New York Community Study

The UJA-Federation of New York federation released the New York 2023 Jewish Community Study, discussed in the New York Jewish Week and in eJP.  

The JTA story only noted that “The rate of intermarriage is lower in New York than among Jews in the rest of the country.” While the overall percent of New York married couples who are intermarried is 37%, it is 46% of all non-Orthodox couples, and 57% of non-Orthodox couples who are 30-49 years old (compared to 34% of those who are 65+).

The eJP report quotes Ira Sheskin as attributing the 6% growth in Jewish households since the last survey in 2011 “in part to interfaith marriages” – “If two Jews marry one another, you get one Jewish household. If two Jews marry non-Jews, you get two Jewish households.”

The study found that 16% of adults in intermarried families report they are raising their children Jewish and 5% Jewish and something else (compared to 96% and 0% respectively in in-married families). Emily Sigalow, one of the study’s directors, is quoted in the eJP story as saying “a lower percentage of interfaith couples said they raised their children Jewish than expected… In other big Jewish communities like Los Angeles and Chicago, there are higher percentages [of people saying their children are Jewish]…” Sigalow “attributed the difference to how pollsters phrase the questions: ‘We asked about how children are raised, whereas others asked about their Jewish identity.’”

Importantly, as to 20% of the children in intermarried families, and 27% of the children in those families under three years of age, the parents have not decided yet on religious upbringing – representing a big opportunity. Moreover, 44% of adults in intermarried families reporting they are raising their children as “none of the above” – yet 66% of those families celebrate Hanukkah and 62% attend a Passover seder. This illustrates the lack of clarity and consistency around what it means to raise a child Jewish, or Jewish and something else, or neither of those choices.

However, only 27% of intermarried households with children held a Jewish naming ceremony, and only 17% have had or are planning to have a bar or bat mitzvah. The low figure for naming ceremonies is understandable given the large percentage of undecideds with younger children, but the low figure for bar/bat mitzvah, when children obviously are older, is concerning.

The study asked questions about the reasons people did not attend religious services, but unlike some other local community studies, did not give as a possible answer not feeling welcome.

Finally, the study asked respondents how important it would be that their grandchildren be Jewish and marry someone Jewish. They conclude from the answers that Jewish New Yorkers feel that “Jewish continuity is important” – suggesting, wrongly I would say, that marrying someone Jewish is necessary for Jewish continuity. In fact, intermarrieds in the survey understood this: while 42% said it was important that their grandchildren be Jewish, only 17% said it was important that their grandchildren marry someone Jewish.

Progress

In March I wrote that Noah Feldman’s new book To Be a Jew Today offers A Fresh Perspective on Interfaith Marriage. This month an article in the Harvard Law Bulletin (where Feldman teaches) says he “explores the tension in discouraging intermarriage amid societal expectations that we should be free to marry whomever we happen to love, writing that ‘there is something troubling about saying that I can only love someone if the person is part of my Us, not if the person is part of my Them.’”

Samir Mehta’s “For American Jews, interfaith weddings are a new normal – and creatively weave both traditions together” is a very pleasant recounting of the ways interfaith couples incorporate their families’ traditions. At the end, under the heading “Tough conversations,” she writes that “Not everything is fun and easy in the world of interfaith weddings.” Couples who she interviewed told her stories about their weddings – but some were about rabbis who would not officiate for them, or family members who disapproved. But she concludes, “Overall, however, most people’s weddings were happy memories that offered hints to the interfaith lives and household that they would go on to create together.”

The second (perhaps annual?) Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism conference is being held May 29 and 30. As I wrote last year, although one of the motivations for the gathering then was “lagging Reform synagogue attendance and declining revenues,” nothing was said about inclusion of interfaith families as a way to reverse declining enrollment. I was pleased to see that this year, 18Doors’ Jodi Bromberg is a panelist, and I hope to report on what was said next month.

Also in the news:

  • In a positive development from Israel, the Supreme Court ruled that non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel would be recognized for purposes of Israeli citizenship. Previously, non-Orthodox conversions outside of Israel were recognized, but not those conduced in Israel. One leading political figure “welcomed the ruling, saying, ‘We all need to live here in mutual tolerance and respect.’”
  • A report of a presentation by Dr. Tatjana Lichtenstein, a professor at the University of Texas, on the experiences of intermarried families in the Holocaust.
  • PRRI published a survey on “Family Religious Dynamics and Interfaith Relationships” but unfortunately did not report any data on Jews or Jewish families.

April 2024 News from the Center

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Divided Community

April 2024 was a quiet month – except for Why are they so anti-us?, a personal reflection in the New Jersey Jewish News on current antisemitism by a great-grandmother and blogger who’s in her 80’s. It’s a fine piece – except for two paragraphs near the end, where the author refers to intermarriage as a problem, says there is “protection” against it, lists ways to “make a big dent in the out-marriage rate,” and makes a “personal commitment to never attend an intermarriage. Period.”

I wrote to the editors asking why they would publish a hateful comment about interfaith marriage that would alienate a large segment of their audience: “Especially at this time, when we in Jewish communities everywhere need all the friends and allies we can get, shouldn’t this kind of commentary be avoided?”

Fortunately, since October 7 there’s been very little hostility to interfaith marriage expressed in the Jewish media. The worst example came after a mother who is not Jewish wrote a beautiful piece, “I Chose for My Family to Be Jewish. Even After October 7, I Would Choose It Again.” An Orthodox rabbi from Israel responded with “Judaism Is Not a State of Mind,” telling her that her children are not Jewish because Judaism is transmitted through the mother. As I said in the February newsletter, it’s unfortunate that the rabbi could not respect that there is more than one way to be Jewish, or see the benefit of having the number of Jewishly-engaged people expand. I feel the same way about the NJJN piece.

Of course, regulating the expression of speech is complicated. We live in a divided community. Traditional Jews are certainly entitled to hold and express the view that interfaith marriage is wrong. If the expression could be contained to the traditional world, it wouldn’t cause too much problem in the liberal world. (This month there was a long podcast of a senior Chabad rabbi explaining why interfaith marriage is terrible; there’s no sense in arguing with Chabad on this issue, and the podcast is presumably preaching almost entirely to their traditional choir anyway.) But in today’s world, speech doesn’t stay contained, and anti-interfaith marriage expression does cause harm in the liberal world, making interfaith couples feel unwelcomed, and partners from different faith backgrounds devalued.

I would hope the gatekeepers of expression in the Jewish media would keep this in mind. The NJJN piece would have been fine without the anti-interfaith marriage paragraphs, which could have been edited out. Or the piece could have been held until a piece that expressed a different view could be run alongside it.

A related and sad news item out of Israel reports that some victims of October 7 are not being allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries because they were not halachically Jewish. One political commentator is quoted as saying, aptly, “In the most concrete sense possible, we will not be a people until we resolve this issue.”

Worth Noting

The few other mentions of interfaith marriage this month were a balance of positive, missed opportunity, and negative. There were several nice stories:

  • The Cleveland Jewish News had a feature about communication being key to successful seders for interfaith families
  • The URJ blog had a piece about melding innovation and tradition in naming ceremonies
  • The UK Movement for Reform Judaism blogged that one of the four your people featured in a BBC One program on Growing Up Jewish grew up in a dual heritage family.

In a missed opportunity, the rabbi of “an inclusive Conservative synagogue” in Atlanta wrote a Passover message that emphasized how we are all Jews by choice, but made no mention of partners from different faith backgrounds.

Finally, there was “On Their ‘Schmuckboys’ Podcast, Two Women Share Their Passion for Jews Dating Jews.” Please don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great for Jews who want to date Jews to do so. What bothers me about this article is that the two young Jewish professionals who started the podcast reportedly are “passionate about growing the Jewish community” – and apparently think that dating Jewish is required for that to happen.

March 2024 News from the Center

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The Jewish world’s attention continues to be focused on Israel and antisemitism. There have been mentions in the media of increased interest in Jewish identity, but they haven’t been connected with inclusion of interfaith families. The topic apparently was not discussed on the agenda or the sidelines at either the Jewish Funders Network or CCAR conferences in March.

One significant development was the release of prominent Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman’s new book, To Be a Jew Today – A New Guide to God, Israel and the Jewish People. Attention to the book has, not surprisingly, focused on what it says about Israel. But as my enthusiastic review published on the Times of Israel blogs says, Feldman offers A Fresh Perspective on Interfaith Marriage.

Feldman explains how the strong taboo against interfaith marriage has been overcome among progressive Jews by the competing values of free choice and romantic love. I was heartened by two points. First, Feldman suggests that traditional Jews could evolve Jewish law that they consider binding so as to accommodate interfaith marriages, as some have for gay marriages. Second, in what sounds like a radically inclusive Judaism in which partners from different faith traditions are thought of and treated as equal, he says that “the only challenge left” for progressive Jews “is to reframe the acceptance of interfaith marriage as affirmatively positive,” not just a reluctant concession to reality. I hope Feldman’s thinking on interfaith marriage gets the attention among Jewish leaders that it deserves.

Another significant development was the announcement of an important partnership between ADL and 18Doors that will address the need for programs and resources on antisemitism specifically for interfaith couples. As Jodi Bromberg said, “Couples and family members come from a place of love, connection and shared humanity—and yet, these conversations around antisemitism and allyship can be hard to navigate.” This partnership is a clear sign that the ADL recognizes the importance of helping interfaith couples remain allies and feel included in Jewish communities.

II do remain worried that statements, like one in the Boston Globe this week, that the Jewish people “are fundamentally alone,” and ongoing calls for strengthening Jewish peoplehood, by focusing on the “mainstream,” and putting our own oxygen masks on first, could result in pushing interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds away. I’m seeing more emails coming from Jewish organizations and professionals ending with “Am Yisrael Chai!” It’s a sentiment I share – may the Jewish people live and thrive.

But “Jewish people” is a shorthand term susceptible to different interpretation. It could mean Jews only. But it could include partners from different faith backgrounds who are not Jewish themselves. As I’ve said before, I wish people would use the term “Jewish community” because it’s more inclusive. The partners from different faith backgrounds and their extended families are the natural allies of the Jewish people – and the Jewish community needs all the allies it can get.

It’s very tricky. In The Jewish Mainstream, Adina Poupko writes that the Natan Fund, which she leads, has paid close attention to “outliers” – people not yet included in Jewish communal life – as “an early funder of LGBTQ inclusion, Jewish farming and environmentalism, new models of synagogues and grassroots communities, and Jewish arts and culture.” (She could have included interfaith families among her outliers – when I ran InterfaithFamily (now 18Doors), Natan was a very influential early funder).

But now, with Israel and the Jewish people at war on many fronts, she says we need to direct more of our funding to “the mainstream”:

“We need to shift from meeting people ‘where they are’ to providing them with opportunities to learn and engage and invite them over to where we are, where most Jews are. We shouldn’t be so accommodating that we turn our communities upside down or compromise on core tenets that are existentially important to nearly all of us.”

Poupko thankfully is careful to say that she’s not suggesting “that we put our support for the outliers on hold.” The point of her essay may be that anti-Zionists should not be accommodated, which is a whole other question. But it would be terrible if Jewish leaders start thinking that, and acting like, we shouldn’t be accommodating to those not yet included in Jewish life.

Finally, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, writes that in the aftermath of October 7 Jews have been “made to feel utterly alone by the hostility of the world,” but that ironically the Jewish spirit of many has been awakened – what he calls “a tidal wave of prosemitism.” Rabbi Hauer caught my eye when he said that we must figure out how to lock in the wave of prosemitism “for those who have yet to firmly establish themselves within the Jewish communal family.” Given the Orthodox Union’s past statements, I doubt that Rabbi Hauer had interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds in mind. But there’s always hope.

Also worth reading:

  • In Kriah and a Crucifix: A Rabbi’s Story of Interfaith Mourning Rabbi Simon Stratford, an 18Doors Rukin Fellow, writes that “I’ve realized that in a person’s darkest hours, my role as a rabbi isn’t to set boundaries and limit the participation of mourners but rather to do what I can to make them feel included and supported in their grief.”
  • In The Story of Esther, the Story of Us,  Crystal Hill relates her own interfaith family to Purim’s story of Esther’s interfaith family and current concerns about expressing identity.
  • A group of Orthodox Church and Catholic Church representatives are recommending that the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church take steps to recognize each others’ marriages.

February 2024 News from the Center

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October 7, Antisemitism, and Interfaith Families

Writing in eJP  about “Communal transformations in our time of crisis,” Rabbis Ben Spratt and Joshua Stanton aptly summarize the current moment: “The growing notion of a wisdom tradition with universal appeal is largely being eclipsed, at least for the moment, by the visceral call to peoplehood as a group under threat by an increasingly hostile society.”

We’ve expressed before the hope that “peoplehood” will be understood to include partners from different faith backgrounds, as well as their families. Our group under threat needs to be as broad as possible, with as many allies as possible.

The ADL and 18Doors announced a new partnership to support interfaith families in countering rising antisemitism. Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO, described “an increasing need for resources … for those in interfaith families…. Our partnership with 18Doors will bring inclusive tools and guidance to more people in interfaith relationships, addressing the challenge of antisemitism family by family.”

This article in the New York Times, “Navigating Israel’s War When One Spouse Is Jewish, and One Is Not,” based on interviews of numerous interfaith couples, feels honest and accurate. We appreciated the sub-title, “For some couples, figuring out how to talk about the war in Gaza is a hurdle in the relationship, but ultimately one that has brought them closer.”

The War Made My Husband, A Jew By Choice, Even More Jewish,” is an important albeit troubling personal story. The author writes about “gaps between my convert husband and my born-Jewish background.” She says his conversion is a joy to her and a boon to their relationships, but they “diverge in knowledge, in attachment, and in attitude.” She says to him,

“It’s in my blood and bones, and I know I come from this, that I am made by this history, forged by these words and these concepts and this people. I don’t think you can feel the same way. You’re not of it in the same way. It’s not of you. You can love it and hold it and participate in it, and you do, but it’s not the stuff of you. It didn’t make you in the same way.”

She refers to the prohibition on reminding converts of their former status, but then says there is a

“running undercurrent that if you’re not born Jewish, you can’t possibly become so, can’t possibly understand. You’re a wannabe, a hanger-on, an interloper. I had always bucked this sometimes-not-so-quiet attitude, and now here I was subjecting my own beloved husband to the same blood-based scrutiny. Suspicion and clannism run deep among the humans. Jews, in this instance, are no exception (however we may try to be, or think that we are).”

Then, after her husband responds to October 7 with “solidarity and support,” goes to services with her, wears an anti-antisemitism button, ties blue ribbon around their trees, and listens to Jewish podcasts, she is

“no longer worried about our different experiences growing up; I know that when disaster befalls our people, he will be right in the thick of it with me, fully identifying, fully supportive. The proof is in his actions and attitudes every day of this war; he is more completely a Jew than I ever dreamed of.”

It certainly rings true that people who grew up with Judaism will have differences in knowledge, attitudes and attachments about and towards it. But responding with suspicion and tribalism to converts, let alone partners from different faith backgrounds, who are actively “doing Jewish” – regarding them as interlopers – weakens the overall Jewish community. This story genuinely surfaces the deep-seated tribalism many Jews feel; we need to be aware of it, and to resist it.

Conservative Movement

Last month we commented on the Conservative movement’s new report on efforts to engage interfaith families, without lifting the ban on its rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, head of the movement, then wrote a heartfelt explanation, “Why the Conservative Movement Is Changing Our Approach to Interfaith Marriage.

Rabbi Blumenthal did not fully explain why the movement is maintaining the ban, but it appears to be the view that a rabbi-officiated interfaith wedding ceremony would not have “Jewish integrity” for either the rabbi or the couple. Telling that to an interfaith couple looking for a rabbi to officiate can only push them away from Jewish engagement.

(The only other mention we saw of the Conservative movement’s new efforts to engage was this JNS report.)

Orthodox Triumphalism

Judaism Is Not a State of Mind” is an awful piece. Last month’s newsletter highlighted Jennifer Cox’s “I Chose for My Family to Be Jewish. Even After October 7, I Would Choose It Again;” she is a mother who is not Jewish but who feels strongly that her children and her family are Jewish. Now comes an Orthodox rabbi, Rav Hayim Leiter, who tells Cox her children aren’t Jewish, because Judaism is “transmitted through the maternal line.” He says, “I don’t point this out to be cruel or insensitive,” but that’s exactly what it is, because it’s false as to much of the Jewish world outside Rav Leiter’s Orthodox lane, and counter-productive to anyone who wants to see the number of Jewishly-engaged people expand. For many people outside of his lane, and contrary to his title, Judaism is largely a state of mind – and there’s more than one way to be Jewish. It’s too bad he can’t respect that and see the benefit to the Jewish people overall for Jennifer Cox’s family to be and to be considered Jewish.

Hebrew College Admissions Policy

When Rabbi Art Green opposed the Hebrew College Rabbinic School’s change of policy that allowed admission to students in interfaith relationships as “giving in to assimilation,” the Times of Israel published my response, What’s More Important, Being Jewish or Doing Jewish. There’s been a lot of recent commentary about Rabbi Green’s sanctioning for sexual misconduct that we did not think was relevant for the Center to mention – until this blog post where Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein suggests that the sanctioning can’t be separated from Hebrew College’s change in policy. He refers to a tragedy that “a generation of rabbis [is] being trained by this particular form of ‘Judaism’” and expresses concern for “congregations who will encounter a gay, intermarried rabbi as the authentic representative of Judaism, with no sense of commandment, obligation, and submission to tradition.” To repeat: there is more than one way to be Jewish.

British Jews

The UK Institute of Jewish Policy Research issued a new report that shows the rate of interfaith marriage has increased from 17% in the 1990s, to 24% of those who married between 2000 and 2009, to 34% of those who married between 2010 and 2022. More women (21%) than men (14%) are intermarried; more secular/cultural (48%) and Reform (20%) are intermarried. On traditional measures (belonging to a synagogue, having half or more Jewish friends lighting Chanukah candles), the intermarried are more “weakly connected.” Curiously, the report does not include data on how children of interfaith families are being raised religiously.

We appreciated the lack of negative commentary about the increasing rate of interfaith marriage. The author of the report, Dr. Jonathan Boyd, doesn’t comment on it one way or the other. The initial coverage in the UK Jewish press is titled “Steep Rise in Jews Marrying Out as the Number of Zionists Drop Says New Survey,” but only reports the intermarriage data and doesn’t otherwise comment.

Moreover, there was a very strong statement by a Progressive Rabbi, Josh Levy, whose response to the one-in-three rate is “Leap of Faith: it is our sacred task to welcome mixed-faith families” where he says “Jewish identity doesn’t cease to be important to a Jew who falls in love with and marries a non-Jew. Rather, it is the quality of our welcome that matters most.”

Also worth noting:

  • Steven Windmueller’s “Ten Trends That Are Reshaping American Judaism” is another example of ignoring interfaith marriage. He mentions “non-binary Jews, Jews of color, and ‘unchurched’ individuals” as new constituencies, heightened awareness of diversity and inclusion, and generational differences regarding identity and affiliation, all contributing to “redefining American Judaism” – with nothing said about interfaith families.
  • Last month we mentioned the controversy around the Israel Education Ministry pulling funding from a program because Lucy Aharish, an Israeli Arab married to an Israeli Jew (Fauda star, Tsahi Halevi) participated as the program host. Now in a long interview with Bari Weiss, Aharish talks about raising their child as Muslim and Jewish, and discusses the backlash she and her husband received when they married.
  • This article in Catholic Review says that Catholics are supposed to marry only other Catholics, in Catholic ceremonies, but there are dispensations available. This article says “Hinduism has no rules against marrying outside the faith. But couples say it has its bumps.

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The Center is proud to have signed up to be a distribution partner with Everyone Counts, an initiative aimed at freeing the hostages.

January 2024 News from the Center

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There were several developments this month reflecting progress towards inclusion of interfaith families, and the need for more progress.

More Representation in Children’s Literature

Laurel Snyder, an award-winning author of children’s books who grew up with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, wrote a beautiful story about the importance of children seeing their kind of family represented in books. In her own latest, The Witch of Woodland, Snyder sees the journey of Zippy, the heroine that reflects Snyder’s life, “as authentically Jewish” and “was able to love Zippy for the very complexity of her identity and the bravery it took to examine herself and her community.” Snyder posted on Facebook her gratitude that her book, and another about intermarried families, were just named as finalists for National Jewish Book Awards in middle grade literature: “stories about kids navigating Jewish lives from outside what we understand to be the ‘norm.’” This is important progress, and we congratulate Laurel Snyder.

(In a piece from last September reflecting more progress, “My Own Bat Mitzvah Was Stressful. I Wanted Better for My Sons,” Snyder describes the damaging exclusion her mother experienced at Snyder’s bat mitzvah, and the inclusion her husband, their sons, and Snyder’s mother experienced many years later at the sons’ bar mitzvahs.)

Conservative Movement

JTA had a major story by Jacob Gurvis about a new report from the Conservative movement, summarized well in the article’s title: “Conservative movement maintains its ban on officiating at intermarriages but urges its rabbis to engage more with interfaith families.” There is a lot about this in the new report that I hope to comment on at a later time.

Coincidentally, JTA had an earlier interesting story about a Conservative synagogue outside of Boston that hired a cantor who can officiate at weddings of interfaith couples (but not in the synagogue building) because she was not ordained in the Conservative movement and does not belong to its clergy associations. I have mixed feelings about this “half-way” or maybe “quarter-way” step, and more broadly about the movement’s approach. On the one hand, it’s good that interfaith couples will have an avenue to a Jewish clergy-officiated wedding with clergy affiliated with a Conservative synagogue (that’s convoluted, but it’s a convoluted situation). On the other hand, I continue to question how the movement can achieve a goal of engaging interfaith families while maintaining a no-officiation policy for its own clergy that is difficult to understand as other than an official disapproval of interfaith marriage.

October 7, Antisemitism, and Interfaith Families

More stories are starting to appear about the impact on people in interfaith relationships of Israel’s war against Hamas and increasing expressions of antisemitism. In “I Chose for My Family to Be Jewish. Even After October 7, I Would Choose It Again,” Jennifer Cox, who is not Jewish, feels strongly, even defiantly, that “my children are not ‘half’ Jewish. They are Jewish. My family is Jewish.” She adds, “On October 7, and on every day since, Hamas terrorists and other antisemites haven’t differentiated between patrilineal or matrilineal Jews.” Her essay is a fascinating description of her and her Jewish husband’s different attitudes, experiences, and choices as they relate to current events. She concludes, “I chose for my family to be Jewish, and to whatever extent the choice is mine, I will choose it every time.”

Tablet also had a piece about what Henry Wilhelm, a partner from a different faith background in an interfaith relationship, learned about antisemitism after October 7. Wilhelm happens to be in the process of conversion, but his perspective might be shared by many partners in interfaith relationships.

JTA reported that the horrible events of October 7 have fueled, for some, a renewed dedication to converting. A person featured in the story says, “I felt my need to be a Jewish mother was growing stronger, and my desire to be in Israel, to help and just to be unified with the people. So for me, this was the biggest push. I want to start my Jewish family.”

As we’ve said repeatedly, conversion is a wonderful personal choice that we support and celebrate. But we were troubled that a rabbi featured in the story is quoted as saying, “the perfect reaction to this war was creating really strong Jewish families.” We were troubled because conversion is not necessary to create strong Jewish families; if that rabbi met Laurel Snyder, or Jennifer Cox, maybe he would speak differently. The Forward also reported increased interest in conversion, without any similar judgmental hint.

Finally, the New York Times had a maddening story by Joseph Bernstein about a woman who “issued a call to ‘#MakeJewishBabies’.” In describing young Jewish women who in response to October 7 have “rediscovered the imperative to have Jewish children,” the story describes their seeking to do so only with Jewish men. There isn’t even a glimmer of recognition that interfaith couples raise Jewish children!

Dan Horwitz’ Important New Book, Just Jewish

Just Jewish: How To Engage Millennials and Build a Vibrant Jewish Future by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, the founder of The Well, has a lot of helpful advice on how Jewish organizations can build relationships, market, partner, develop programming and fundraise – and not just around millennials.

What we appreciated about the book is the matter-of-fact acknowledgment of the prevalence of interfaith relationships and seeing them as an opportunity. This starts with the Introduction: “Jewish Millennials are globally connected, have mostly non-Jewish friends, and are living in interfaith households at an incredibly high clip (whether as products of an interfaith marriage and/or in one themselves).” Or the book’s end, “For those concerned about Jewish continuity, the math argues for viewing interfaith marriages as a Jewish communal growth opportunity.”

Rabbi Horwitz has an interesting take on the interplay between the universal and the particular that applies to interfaith couples generally: “[T]here remains an important role for a particularistic community to play, and Millennials are willing to embrace the particular – so long as it’s not to the exclusion of the universal.” He suggests that the traditional particularistic fundraising pitch that “All of Israel are responsible for one another” will not resonate with many Millennials who are from or in interfaith relationships, and suggests a more universal pitch that emphasizes services provided to people of all backgrounds.

I appreciated the frequent mentions of the importance of inclusion of interfaith couples. The Well’s leaders decided to describe it as “inclusive” “to make it clear that as an organization we embraced interfaith couples, LGBTQ+ folks, etc.” and “were pleased to learn that for several of our interfaith couples, the word ‘inclusive’ is a signaling word they look for when trying to determine whether a Jewish organization will warmly welcome them.”

“If a Jewish Millennial feels that they can be their whole selves and include the people they love in what they’re doing, they’re much more likely to do Jewish… Part of our communal strategy should be … making sure they know their non-Jewish friends and partners are welcome…”

Rabbi Horwitz traces the response to interfaith marriage since 1990 and concludes that “while there are still some who are concerned with preventing these marriages…, much of the communal agenda has shifted to how best to welcome these families… viewing an interfaith marriage as welcoming someone new as opposed to treating the Jew who married a gentile as someone who has chosen to leave the community…” But he acknowledges, as 18Doors’ Jodi Bromberg writes, that many interfaith couples have “not found a Jewish community that felt comfortable for them or inclusive of interfaith families.”

Rabbi Horwitz acknowledges still-problematic issues of attitudes and policies. On officiation, he says, dryly, “Being turned away by rabbis when it’s time to celebrate their marriage and then hoping they’ll join synagogue communities where they experience rejection isn’t an ideal strategy.”  Further, “Also troubling are the inevitable micro-aggressions that many of these couples are met with across denominations, as it’s still normative to hear people say to the parents of young children things like, ‘Just wait until he grows up and finds a nice Jewish girl to marry!’”

If I have one quibble, it’s with the sub-chapter heading, “Interfaithless Marriage” and with Rabbi Horwitz having “taken to referring to these couples as ‘interfaithless.’” I don’t think that terms that describe people (i.e., “non-Jew”) or relationships (i.e., “interfaithless”) as something they are not, is a good idea. He seems to define “interfaithless” as neither partner actively practicing their inherited faith in a traditional manner – but how liberal Jewish-Jewish couples are doing that?

Rabbi Horwitz says, based on working with scores of couples, some interfaith, that their desire for a rabbi to officiate, or traditions like breaking a glass, or to please their parents or grandparents, does not indicate anything “religious.” But there’s no reason to suggest that interfaith couples have less or different spiritual needs than Jewish-Jewish couples, or that they don’t want as much spirituality in their weddings.

I do very much appreciate where Rabbi Horwitz ends up:

“Being sensitive to the needs of these couples is key….The simple truth is that there are wonderful human beings in this world who don’t happen to be Jewish who will make wonderful partners for our own Jewish children… [O]ur focus must be on how we make being part of Jewish community so welcoming, joyous, meaningful, relevant and substantive that these couples can’t imagine not wanting to be actively part of it themselves and are excited about raising any future offspring within it as well…. Turning away, shaming, or simply ‘tolerating’ mixed-heritage couples as opposed to embracing them is a missed opportunity to begin forming lasting relationships with them.”

Also in the News

  • HeyAlma had a powerful story by a college sophomore who calls for patrilineal Jews to proudly celebrate themselves. This especially resonated: “Like all groups, one’s identity being affirmed and celebrated is what indicates future commitment to it, and being excluded will … ultimately lead to feeling the need to leave.”
  • Ha’aretz reported that the Education Ministry of Israel pulled funding from an annual all night learning event on the eve of Shavuot, that promotes pluralistic, progressive Judaism, because Israeli-Arab broadcast journalist Lucy Aharish, who is married to an Israeli Jew who is stars in Fauda, participated as the event’s host. The Director of the Division of Jewish Culture is quoted as saying, “We live in a ‘Jewish State’ and as the Wing of Jewish Culture, it makes sense that a woman who represents mixed marriage cannot represent Jewish culture.” Aharish said the Ministry was saying, “we judge you for being an Arab, you are not a part of us.”
  • The forthcoming Rosov Consulting study, mentioned in our December newsletter, that recognizes the impact of attitudes and ideologies about interfaith marriage on interfaith families’ Jewish engagement, was discussed in eJewishPhilanthropy.
  • A very interesting page on “Marriage Services,” from the website of Muslims for Progressive Values, notes, “we do not require conversion by the non-Muslim partner. Please view the theological basis for the permissibility for such a marriage at the bottom of the page.”
  • There was a nice, matter-of-fact story in a Houston TX area local secular paper, about interfaith couples finding their community welcoming.
  • In the Boston Globe’s “Ask Amy” feature, atheist parents asked for a second opinion on not celebrating Christmas with their child because “we don’t want to push religious messages;” Amy’s answer: “For many people, Christmas is more a commercial celebration than a religious one. If you wanted to, it would be possible to do the whole Christmas shebang without ever delving into any Christian thought or belief.”

December 2023 News from the Center

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Most of the Jewish world’s attention is still focused – appropriately I would say – on what’s happening in Israel. But it feels right to start reporting and commenting on interfaith inclusion news again. Especially since December is always a big month for interfaith families.

December Holidays

The UK Institute for Jewish Policy Research issued a new study that found that 28% of Jews in the UK have a Christmas tree at least some years. For interfaith couples, it’s 45% every year, compared to 36% who light Hanukkah candles. I appreciated that the JPR referred to Christmas trees as a “cultural manifestation.”

Most important, the JPR, which is a pretty traditional organization, did not criticize or bemoan the presence of Christmas trees, but instead calmly concluded that the findings “capture both the tenacity of Jewishness today and the realities of Jewish life in the modern multicultural age… Maintaining a Jewish identity in a non-Jewish society has long been a challenge; the ways in which we adopt non-Jewish customs and practices says a great deal about who we are and how we manage those dynamics.” (The Jewish News article on the report had a catchy title – “Oy to the World” – and refers to “ChristmasTreeGate” – but ultimately quotes the same conclusion.)

I read a few stories in Jewish and secular media about how interfaith families were celebrating the December holidays, but didn’t really notice anything new. The Reform movement’s website had some nice and very accepting advice in Five Ways to Approach Family Conversations Around Hanukkah and Christmas.

There was one story I didn’t care for, “I packed away Christmas 35 years ago, but I still bring holiday joy to others.” Janet Silver Ghent grew up in a Jewish family that celebrated Christmas, then married and divorced a man who was not Jewish, then married a Jewish man who had been in an interfaith marriage; at that point she gave up Christmas because she “reclaimed [her] Jewish identity after decades of assimilation.” She told a step-daughter, who asked why they couldn’t have a little tree, “a little tree is like a little pregnant.”

Ghent’s story stood out to me for a tone that is critical of Jewish families that celebrate Christmas, something I did not see much of elsewhere this December. Assimilation means losing Jewish identity and practice; it seems that more and more people in the Jewish world understand that having a Christmas tree does not mean that an interfaith family has assimilated.

Attitudes about Interfaith Marriage

The Shalom Hartman Institute and its co-president Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi, are deservedly among the most highly-regarded Jewish educational institutions and leaders in the world. When someone of Rabbi Hartman’s stature speaks about engaging interfaith families positively, it’s amazing, a cause for celebration.

In his new book, Who Are The Jews – And Who Can We Become, Hartman refers to “non-assimilationist exogamy;” says “most North American Jews who marry non-Jews do not see selves as rejecting Jewishness;” says interfaith marriage “can no longer be a boundary that defines Jewishness – it is now the norm of Jewish life;” talks about expanding “the parameters of Jewish identity” and “the inclusion of intermarried Jews and their spouses who chose to join us;” and recommends, “rather than digging our heels into a self-defeating discourse of denial, we marshal our collective creativity to ensure a vital next chapter in the Jewish people’s story.” This was all music to my ears.

I was equally amazed when the institute’s US-based co-president, Yehuda Kurtzer, another top Jewish public intellectual, in an opinion about the reshaping of the American Zionist left after October 7, said,  “[T]he big tent should be inclusive of anyone seeking to belong. One fascinating outcome of this could mean that we stop the decadeslong obsession with intermarriage as the marker of Jewish peoplehood. After Oct. 7, identification with the Jewish people at a time of suffering is a much healthier, and maybe more accurate, indicator of belonging.”

Speaking of top intellectual leaders, I was very saddened by the death of Rabbi David Ellenson, the much beloved past president of Hebrew Union College. As explained in my remembrance, he had the most remarkable generosity of spirit of anyone I ever met. Although I publicly criticized his decision to maintain HUC’s policy not to admit rabbinic students in interfaith relationships, he became a supporter and a friend,  publicly endorsing InterfaithFamily’s work several times, speaking at the afternoon of learning when I retired from InterfaithFamily, and providing the cover endorsement for my book. He never said this to me, but I can only imagine that he felt our policy differences were disputes for the sake of heaven.

Research

The Cohen Center at Brandeis released the 2022 San Diego Jewish Community Study. In San Diego, 49% of married Jewish individuals are intermarried, and 67% of couples that include a Jewish person are intermarried; in intermarried households, 55% of children are considered by their parents to be Jewish, and another 20% are considered to be Jewish and another religion. During 2024 I hope to complete my analysis of the Cohen Center’s recent local community studies.

I am excited about the prospects of a new study, funded by the Crown Family, Harold Grinspoon and Jim Joseph foundations. The study by Rosov Consulting and led by Alex Pomson will explore “the interests, needs, hopes, and challenges of a wide diversity of Jewish families, including those with more than one religious or cultural tradition…” They will examine which elements of the parents’ heritages they wish to continue, which they have chosen not to, and why.

The first part of the study is a just-released review of research which clearly notes that welcoming Jewish attitudes and institutions make a difference. I appreciated the review’s statement that the last decade’s research “dispels the still-common tropes in communal discourse about the ‘dangers’ [interfaith families] pose to Jewish continuity.” I appreciated the recognition that structural factors, including institutional policies and ideologies, impact on couples’ decision. For interfaith families, that means experiencing pressure to convert, encountering attitudes and policies that privilege matrilineal descent, and hearing interfaith marriage characterized as a problem. I appreciated the review’s noting that for LGBTQ+ couples who are also interfaith, “many of the Christian partners were more favorably inclined toward Judaism because they viewed the Jewish community as more welcoming of LGBTQ+ people.”

I liked what the review said about terminology:

[W]e use the term “interfaith” to refer to all couples and their families in which one partner is Jewish (in some way) and the other is from a different religious, cultural or ethnic background, including those in which one partner has converted to Judaism, those in which each partner adheres to a different faith tradition, and those who do not consider themselves to be religious. All such families face similar challenges in negotiating which elements of the parents’ childhood heritage to perpetuate or discard.

Finally, coming full circle back to December, the review also notes the negative influence of Jews choosing to “code” Christmas traditions as “religious” and not “cultural,” and “therefore incompatible with a Jewish home, even though … arguably devoid of strictly religious meaning for many who engage in them.”

I find all of this very promising, and look forward to further reports as the study takes shape.

* * * * * *

At this difficult time, I hope your December holidays were as good as they could be, and I send sincere wishes for a good and better new year.

November 2023 News from the Center

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November continued to be a very challenging month. I’ve stayed in touch with the Israeli mother I mentioned in last month’s newsletter, who wasn’t able to come with her son to my grandson’s bar mitzvah as they had planned. I felt compelled to and was glad to participate in the November 14 rally for Israel in Washington DC; she told me afterwards that Israelis appreciated that so many Americans showed up. I think that was the most impactful aspect of the rally.

The next day my friend and her three children were volunteering around the hostage families’ march to Jerusalem. Most recently she expressed the way I feel – “relieved to see some hostages return, but terrified about the fate of hundreds more,” and worried about her husband, called up as an IDF reservist, who is still in Gaza. I can’t imagine how worrying that must be.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to say much at this time about interfaith family inclusion. As I indicated last month, I hope that what’s happening in Israel will result in more open and generous attitudes among traditional Jews towards interfaith families and their family members who have different faith backgrounds, because the Jewish people need as broad a tent as possible.

In that regard, there was news from Israel that bears mention: a young woman murdered on October 7, whose father was Jewish but whose mother was not, was refused burial inside a Jewish cemetery. Under Jewish law, only Jews can be buried in Jewish cemeteries. So instead, she was buried in an area “outside the fence” of the cemetery.

The Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and Ha’aretz reported that quite an uproar resulted (I would say, very appropriately). As the woman’s mother said, her daughter “was murdered as a Jew.” Various politicians apologized for the insulting treatment that “bordered on criminal.” A solution was found, to lower the fence, and let it be covered eventually with shrubs, preserving the halachic separation, while not so obviously demeaning and ostracizing the non-halachic Jew.

As I’ve said many times, it behooves the traditional community to acknowledge that there is more than one way to be Jewish, and that it’s in the interest of the Jewish community as a whole to include those who want to be included but are not halachically Jewish, at least for all purposes where halachic status is not critical. They should want people who identify as Jews but are not halachically Jewish to stand in support of Israel. Relegating an October 7 victim to a clearly second-class area of a cemetery isn’t conducive to that.

Similarly, I had no issue with the fact that there was quite a heavy Orthodox presence at the Washington DC rally, but I was asked at least five times by earnest young men if I had put on tefillin yet that day. That question is very alienating to me; putting on tefillin is not part of my practice, and it’s not respectful of my choice to suggest that it should be. I wonder if the leaders of groups which encourage these young men ever consider the possible off-putting consequence, that it might distance people from Jewish engagement.

Finally, I can’t help but note that Hanukkah is rapidly approaching, and December of course is always the biggest month for interfaith family issues. I expect there will be less of that this year, with attention focused appropriately on what’s happening in Israel. It seems like a long time, but something I wrote that was published in the Forward five years ago still expresses my thoughts about the December holidays well: Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas.

October 2023 A Personal Reflection

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In the Center’s monthly email newsletter I try to recap and comment on the month’s developments and news related to inclusion of interfaith families in Jewish life.

But there’s none of that to report this month, October 2023.

I trust it is safe to say “like you” in the following: like you, I am horrified, angry, depressed, and worried, about Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel and its ongoing impact there, as well as the suffering of innocent Palestinians.

This past Shabbat my oldest grandchild became bar mitzvah. He has a very loving family, he did a very wonderful job that made all of us proud, and despite everything going on in the world I’m still feeling euphoric days later.

What’s happening in Israel was made concrete for us, though, because my grandson’s best friend in first grade was an Israeli boy, and he and his mother had planned to come to the bar mitzvah, and then his father was called up in the reserves. Now, every time I see video of IDF soldiers, I wonder if he is among them. I keep in touch with the mother, and worry about the family’s safety and cry often when thinking about them.

Our grandson’s rabbi, Andy Vogel, of Temple Sinai in Brookline, did a masterful job bringing the conflict into the service without overwhelming it – including reciting the prayer for release of captives, a cause for more tears.

Perhaps a powerful antidote to worry about the Jewish future was my grandson’s saying, at the end of his d’var Torah, “I feel really connected to my heritage. It’s very meaningful to me to be Jewish, because Judaism is such a resilient religion.” My tears that time were of gratitude and hope.

And a possible antidote to anti-Israel attitudes, and the horrifying resurgence of antisemitism: more than 50 of my grandson’s friends came to the service; half of them were not Jewish; all the kids were quiet and attentive; they appeared to take in what Rabbi Vogel said about Israel; and they experienced a very beautiful Jewish tradition.

While I worry about what my grandson will encounter when he goes to college in not too many years, I’m hopeful about the attitudes of at least that group of future college students.

Lastly, to connect all of this to our inclusion work. My grandson has one born-Jewish grandparent – that’s me. (My wife converted many years after we were married and had raised our children.) I am convinced that my wonderful son-in-law is my daughter’s bashert (intended one). For all those worried about being too inclusive, please know that after my son-in-law joined with my daughter in reciting the Torah blessings, the walls of Temple Sinai did not crumble. Rabbi Vogel aptly said to him, “you’re right here with us.”

My son-in-law’s wonderful parents moved across the country to be close to the family and our mutual grandsons. They have quietly supported their Jewish upbringing (including driving them to Hebrew School last year on Tuesdays), and many of their siblings and cousins flew across the country to join in our celebration. Just in my grandson’s small extended family, there are quite a few people who while not Jewish themselves are part of his Jewish family – friends and supporters of the Jewish people, and by extension of Israel.

I’m starting to see articles that say, for example, “By bringing Jews of all backgrounds together, the existential crisis coming out of October 7 has reminded us that we are, above all, a people.” Let’s not forget that people like my grandson’s non-Jewish friends and family members are standing with us, too.

And let’s hope and pray for safety for everyone.

September 2023 News from the Center

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High Holiday Sermons – Inclusive and Not-so-inclusive

Rachel Timoner, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brookly, gave an incredibly inclusive Rosh Hashanah sermon. In discussing parallels between religious issues dividing Israelis and dividing American Jews, she describes her congregation as “a prime example of the other liberal Judaism: the progressive, multiracial, interfaith, pluralistic, justice-focused, thriving Judaism.” I loved the sound of “interfaith” modifying “Judaism” along with “progressive, justice-focused” and all the other adjectives.

Rabbi Timoner eloquently describes interfaith family inclusion:

“We do not have one kind of look. We do not have one kind of name. We come from every race and myriad cultures. You may meet a white Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jew, a Black Jew, an Asian Jew, a Latino Jew, an Arab Jew, and no matter what we look like we might know a lot about Judaism or a little. We also include a lot of people who aren’t Jewish. The only thing you can assume – the only thing you should assume – is that every single person you meet at CBE belongs here exactly as much as you do.

Our community includes many intermarried families. Jews have been intermarrying forever. We’re the children of Moses AND Tsippora. We’re the children of Ruth the Moabite who was the ancestor of King David who is the ancestor of the messiah. Some of the most dedicated and outstanding Jewish teens of this community have been children of intermarried families. There is no such thing as a half-Jew. Jewish children of intermarriage are Jews, full stop. When we embrace the diverse families of our community, intermarriage makes us stronger.”

I was very disappointed in the Kol Nidre sermon of Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, which you can listen to here. I hate to disagree with Rabbi Buchdahl, I have been privileged to know and talk with her, and admire her greatly – she is deservedly one of America’s iconic, outstanding rabbis. And I loved the first part of the sermon, which criticizes how the Jewish community has for many years passed judgment on interfaith marriage as a negative. Rabbi Buchdahl nicely describes engaged partners from different faith backgrounds as not “b’nai yisrael,” children of Israel, but “bonei yisrael,” builders of Israel.

But the sermon veers badly off course, in my view, recommending renewed efforts to encourage those builders of Israel to convert. This is personal for the rabbi; she relates how her own mother was only welcomed as a guest, never asked if she were interested in converting.

Here are some of my questions for Rabbi Buchdahl: what do you say to those “bonei yisrael” who do not want to convert? That they can only be welcomed as a guest, whose presence is appreciated, but they can’t be included in Jewish communities – feel that they belong – unless they convert? Isn’t it necessarily passing judgment on partners from different faith backgrounds as second class, if they’re not worthy of being included without converting?

Just before Yom Kippur, Religion News Service ran “This Yom Kippur, she’ll pray inside the synagogue, he’ll secure it on the outside.” It’s a very positive story about the “growing ranks of intermarried synagogue members.” It says ,“the liberal Jewish movements have come a long way in welcoming non-Jewish spouses and encouraging their involvement” and that “religious intermarriage, which once carried a stigma, is now commonplace and is reshaping the contours of Jewish belief, practice and community.” It quotes Len Saxe of the Cohen Center as saying “The future of the Jewish people turns on whether we’re going to educate the children of one, as well as two, Jewish parents… That’s what’s happened in America, and it has led to an increase in the population.” I was pleased to see 18Doors prominently mentioned in the article.

The Detroit Jewish News ran a nice article about my friend Natalie Louise Shribman becoming the rabbi at local Reform Temple Kol Ami. Rabbi Shribman, whose mother isn’t Jewish, says “Throughout my career as a rabbi, I have been trying to find different ways to make interfaith families feel at home for both Jews and their non-Jewish partners.” Meanwhile, Allyson Zacharoff, who “grew up as the Jewish child of a happy interfaith marriage,” is the new rabbi at Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit NJ.

The Movements

The URJ’s September 12 “Inside Leadership” email newsletter featured a blog post titled “Interfaith Inclusion in Our Communities.” I was told that a version had been available for several years and that there is a similar resource on the URJ’s website, “Interfaith Inclusion in Our Congregations & Communities.” These resources very cautiously address issues of terminology, as well as leadership roles and ritual participation by partners who are not Jewish. They do say that “the general trend has been expanding eligibility for leadership positions,” but that ritual participation is “usually determined by [clergy] working alongside lay leaders.”

It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more bold leadership by the movement on these issues, and that there is little attention explicitly given to them. There probably is not bold leadership because, as exemplified by the different sermons of Rabbi Timoner and Rabbi Buchdahl, some rabbis recognize that full inclusion of unconverted partners is necessary, while others want them to  convert. This may also be what stifles discussion; the URJ is celebrating its 150th anniversary in December, but it doesn’t appear from the information available on the event’s website that engaging interfaith families even will be a specific topic of discussion.

On the Conservative side, Daniel Stein, the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, writes for the J that he wants to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Rabbi Stein says that in the Conservative congregations he’s served, interfaith couples “contribute in remarkable ways… their presence enriches our community.” Referring to the movement’s decline, he asks, “How much richer would our Conservative Jewish communities be if rabbis like me could seriously engage with couples at the outset of their marriage?” He concludes by saying that “non-Jews who love Jews … should be welcomed and loved as a vital part of a new Jewish future. Hopefully, the leadership of the Conservative movement will embrace the spirit of the moment before it is too late.”

The Religion News Service story about Yom Kippur focuses on one interfaith couple and welcoming changes that have been made at their Conservative synagogue, Beth Mayer, in Raleigh NC led by Rabbi Eric Solomon (who would like to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples if he could).

(In the August newsletter, I misspoke about the date of the “Can We Talk About Patrilineal Descent” program at the United Synagogue’s convention – it’s in December.)

Europe

My understanding is that local Jewish communities in Europe are highly organized and controlled by Orthodox authorities. This month there were two stories that indicated challenges to that hegemony and possible future liberalization.

New synagogue in Dresden plans to operate outside of Germany’s Jewish mainstream” describes a new “egalitarian congregation” that has some 200 members and “is officially open to Jews and their non-Jewish partners – something that sets it apart from most synagogues in Germany.” The founder told JTA “We don’t need anyone’s authorization to be Jewish or to have our own community, and we don’t accept the Central Council as any authority about how Jewish life should look.”

Meanwhile in Calabria, in southern Italy, a Reconstructionist synagogue founded by Rabbi Barbara Aiello includes descendants of Sephardic Jews, who were forcibly converted to Christianity and are not halachically Jewish, and accepts same-sex and interfaith marriages. As a result, Orthodox communities do not recognize or include Rabbi Aiello’s community.

At our May 2023 Radical Inclusion program, UK Rabbi Guy Hall spoke compared the status of interfaith inclusion in the US and in Europe — watch here.

Missed opportunity

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the senior rabbi of a major Los Angeles synagogue, Stephen Wise Temple, wrote “Big Tent Judaism” for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. He argues that American Jews have a stake in and should be willing to fight for gender equality and inclusion in Israel.

Rabbi Zweiback cites a recent Haftorah portion in which “the prophet Isaiah invites us to imagine a more expansive Jewish community, one that makes room for every person: ‘Enlarge the site of your tent, Extend the size of your dwelling, Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm.’ (Is. 54:2).” He is proud that his synagogue community is committed to egalitarianism and LGBTQ+ inclusion, a big tent where there is “room for Jews of all beliefs, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and levels of observance,” in which “our whole community is included – along with our friends, allies, and beloved guests.”

This is a fine piece. I just wish that Rabbi Zweiback explicitly referred to interfaith couples, and in particular partners from different faith backgrounds, as being included in the tent – made to feel that they belong – and not just welcomed as “beloved guests.”

Also in the Media

Amy Beth Starr, whose husband is not Jewish, wrote very poignantly for Kveller about living in an area where there are very few Jews and sending her son to a Jewish summer day camp where she hoped he’d make some Jewish friends. While he loved the camp, sadly there weren’t many  Jewish kids there and he didn’t make any Jewish friends.

My Google alert on interfaith couples picked up an entry on J Station X – a blog by a video gamer – titled “What Role Did a Rabbi Play in the Process” (I have no idea what game the entry is about). Part of the entry asked “Can a rabbi marry interfaith couples?” I thought the answer was very fair: “It depends on the rabbi and their denomination. Some rabbis are willing to officiate interfaith weddings, while others may have specific guidelines or restrictions.”

An article in a secular paper, the Long Beach (CA) Press-Telegram, focused on the findings in recent demographic studies of Long Beach and of nearby Los Angeles that many Jews don’t feel a sense of belonging in their Jewish communities. While not about interfaith families in particular, the article notes that a vice president of the Long Beach federation said that “though she is part of an interfaith family, her children were welcomed into a local Jewish preschool with open arms.”

August 2023 News from the Center

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Our Jerusalem Post Op-ed

In the run-up to the High Holy Days, the Jerusalem Post published my op-ed, Can Judaism find a loving approach to include interfaith families?

The UK’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research had published a report of rates of interfaith marriage around the world. I was startled when the Post’s editorial said interfaith marriage is not only “a significant phenomenon that cannot be ignored” but more importantly that it must “be approached thoughtfully and sensitively.” I was more startled when the editors applauded creative approaches to interfaith marriage that among other things took into account “the feelings of both Jewish and non-Jewish spouses.”

My op-ed applauds the Post editors’ enlightened thinking. I wanted to say more about what a thoughtful and sensitive approach would involve, and took the opportunity to explain how considering and treating interfaith couples as equal to inmarried couples, and partners from different faith backgrounds as equal to Jews, is both essential to more interfaith families feeling included in Jewish settings, and very challenging to traditional views.

The IJPR’s executive director, Jonathan Boyd, in his own op-ed in the Post, said that in the month of Av, “We’re called on to choose between love and hate across our differences. Choose the former, and we may achieve something together.” In my piece I asked if a loving approach to interfaith couples and partners from different faith backgrounds was too much to hope for, and that’s where the Post got the title.

Embark Acquired by Moishe House

eJewishPhilanthropy reported that Embark, a program for interfaith couples funded by Laura Lauder, has been acquired by Moishe House. Embark has run programs in Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco and Philadelphia to educate interfaith couples about Jewish life and rituals; under Moishe House, a two-day retreat will be added, allowing participants to meet, and Moishe House will offer interfaith couples the option to live its trademark subsidized homes in exchange for hosting Jewish programming for fellow Jewish young professionals.

This sounds like a great match.

The article has a lot of back-and-forth about conversion; I appreciated Laura Lauder’s conclusion, “Whether or not people convert is not going to be a sign of success. We enable young Jewish couples to raise Jewish children, and I would like the world to know that Jewish life in America is going to thrive with interfaith couples, not despite interfaith couples.”

Traditional Attitudes About Interfaith Marriage

The IJPR report, and the Post article about it, are refreshing for concluding that low fertility rates – not interfaith marriage – are the “main threat to Jewish demographic sustainability.” But the author, Dr. Daniel Staetsky, clearly expresses a traditional perspective, in particular when he says that “transmission of Jewishness is partial in the case of intermarried [Jewish] mothers… based on empirical reality.” There isn’t acknowledgment or recognition of the possibilities for full, powerful “transmission of Jewishness” by interfaith parents.

Dr. Staetsky says that “the definition of Jewishness dictated by Jewish law… is broadly accepted by all Jews, while the modifications to it, or expansions, are not.” That’s the root of the problem – the traditional perspective doesn’t tolerate inclusion of interfaith couples or their children. It views high rates of interfaith marriage as a problem, a failure. Comparing the rate of all married Jews who are intermarried, the IJPR study finds the US in the middle of the pack at 45%, compared to Israel at 5% and Poland at 76%; a self-congratulatory comment in the British press notes their 22% rate is third lowest in the world.

The report is positive in mentioning the possibility that Jewish law could change, saying that that is beyond the limits of a demographic study and “belongs in the realm of rabbinical thought.” It is also positive in recognizing the “critical question” of “how to treat the consequences of intermarriage” and asking “How and to what extent … should communities accept and incorporate the offspring and spouses of intermarried Jews into communal activities.” It goes on to ask, “can some normative standards be developed across the Jewish world?” Given traditional attitudes, I’m not optimistic about that.

Conservative Movement

More evidence of the persistence of traditional attitudes is news that the Rabbinical Assembly’s ban on Conservative rabbis officiating at weddings of interfaith couples will continue, the outcome of a strategic planning process. The RA reportedly does want to help rabbis “lead productive conversations with interfaith couples prior to their weddings, even though they can’t officiate.” The article describes a “deep divide,” possibly generational, among the movement’s rabbis, with some optimistic that the ban would not change even in the long term, and others openly defying it.

From our perspective, even if there are “productive conversations,” the ban will continue to make interfaith couples feel that they do not belong in Conservative synagogues.

On the other hand, the schedule for the United Synagogue’s March 2024 convention includes “Can We Talk About Patrilineal Descent.” The description includes: “Given the reality of modern families and ready availability of genetic testing, are our reasons for preserving matrilineal descent still valid? Does maintaining the status quo align with our egalitarian values? Our commitment to LGBTIA+ inclusion? How has it felt when we’ve needed to turn people away from our synagogues and institutions? Is the language of “completion” or “affirmation” instead of conversion sufficient to create meaningful portals of entry?” It’s a positive sign that these questions are being discussed.

Jewish Unity Efforts

In an effort to connect with the editors of the Jerusalem Post to submit the op-ed, I reached out for help to Sandy Cardin, a longtime friend and strong advocate for inclusion in the Jewish community. Sandy is Chair of the Board of the Global Jewry initiative. In my op-ed I said that efforts to build unity among Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, like Global Jewry and President Herzog’s Kol Ha’am, did not explicitly refer to the need to include interfaith families and partners from different faith backgrounds.

Sandy pointed me to new text on the Global Jewry website: “We believe in inclusivity and embrace Jews of all backgrounds, affiliations, and levels of observance. Whether you’re Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Just Jewish, exploring your Jewish identity or supporting your Jewish partner, you’ll find a warm and accepting space here.”

I asked the Jerusalem Post to change the statement about Global Jewry, which was no longer accurate, prior to publication, but they unfortunately did not.

I’m thrilled to see the inclusive language on the Global Jewry site, and thrilled that Sandy invited the Center to partner with Global Jewry. We look forward to participating as we continue to work with all who will listen to the call for a more inclusive unity among Jewish communities.

In Other News

I have mixed feelings about “There is a solution to 70% intermarriage among US Jews.” On the one hand, the author’s “solution” is to “make immigration [to Israel] easy, attractive and compelling for families who have intermarried” so that their children in turn will not intermarry, given the rarity of interfaith marriage in Israel. Not only is this unrealistic, it is based on an underlying attitude that interfaith marriage is bad. On the other hand, the author does call strongly for welcoming and embracing interfaith couples and their children, and even for Jewish weddings in Israel for children of interfaith couples. Sadly, that’s unrealistic too.

I liked “Building the Jewish Future One Bunk at a Time” because it says “Jewish camps are essential in building Jewish identity, creating lifelong Jewish friendships and nurturing future Jewish leaders” – which is great – and doesn’t say that attending camps leads to less interfaith marriage. I do wish the authors had included some mention of the importance of Jewish camps for the children of interfaith families though.

I liked a JTA article about the wedding of David Corenswet, the actor who will next play Superman, because it is so matter of fact that the actor’s rabbi, Edward Cohn in New Orleans, co-officiated his wedding in a Catholic church. The church’s wedding coordinator reportedly said, “The bride and groom were just so determined to intersperse the Jewish traditions with the Catholic traditions, which to me just enhanced the beauty and the strength of both faiths.” Rabbi Cohn said Jewishness is an important part of the actor’s life and that the couple intended to affiliate with a congregation. A model of inclusion keeping doors open to Jewish engagement.

This Torah portion commentary was very challenging – it says that Deuteronomy 23, 20-21 says that it is permissible to lend money and charge interest to a “gentile” but not to a fellow Jew. The author, an Orthodox rabbi, says this is not discrimination against those who are not Jewish, they are to be treated with justice and morality, but there is a preferred attitude towards Jews, our spiritual brothers, to be treated like siblings. I don’t know, sounds discriminatory to me.

Thanks to Susan Katz Miller for pointing out that in an otherwise fascinating article about the Bradley Cooper “Jewface” controversy about his prosthetic nose playing Leonard Bernstein, the author says, “I’m Jewish, and was raised culturally Jewish, but because I had a Jewish father and a Catholic mother and am therefore not a matrilineal Jew, I grew up hearing from various schmucks and nudniks that I was ‘not really Jewish,’ ‘not technically Jewish,’ and ‘not Jewish enough.’”

Finally, a very interesting piece on ableism and people with disabilities included this statement: “The presumption of normativity forces disabled folks to shoulder the burden of disclosure and do the work of negotiating access. Every disabled person I know has stories about the cost of living in a one-size-fits-all society, about being shut out by attitudes, assumptions and physical structures that demand everyone’s body and mind fit within the same basic norm. This isn’t only a disability story. Fat bodies, Black and brown bodies, Jewish bodies, Muslim bodies, femme bodies and queer, trans and nonbinary bodies — so many of us know the costs that normativity exacts.” I wish the author had included interfaith families among the groups disadvantaged by notions of normativity.