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.

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.”

Remembering David Ellenson z”l

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I am one of the many people who was so fortunate to fall within the orbit of David Ellenson, a person of the most remarkable generosity of spirit.

I say this because my advocacy over the years pushed on two issues that were complicated for the head of Hebrew Union College – rabbinic officiation at weddings of interfaith couples, and admission of rabbinic students who were in interfaith relationships.

Despite my pushing, and I’m sure some differences of opinion, he became a supporter, and a friend.

We first met in June 2006 when InterfaithFamily (now 18Doors) was an exhibitor at a CCAR convention in San Diego and really scrapping for attention. I excitedly reported to a colleague afterwards that I had handed the president of Hebrew Union College an invitation to a reception and information session that we sponsored, and that he had come!

At some point, though, after Rabbi Ellenson was quoted in a publication as reiterating HUC’s policy not to admit rabbinic students who were in interfaith relationships, I wrote a letter to the editor criticizing that position. Rabbi Ellenson had argued that that rabbis should be role models; I said what a great role model it would be for interfaith families to see a rabbi who was intermarried.

In March 2008 I wrote an op-ed for the New York Jewish Week emphasizing the importance of interfaith couples being able to find rabbis to officiate at their weddings.  That April, I was invited to a reception at which CJP’s Barry Shrage and Rabbi Ellenson spoke. I wrote David a long email in advance, discussing two studies that had recently come out that showed the positive impact of rabbinic officiation on future Jewish engagement. At the session, Rabbi Ellenson spoke at some length about how he had been approached by four families that week asking him to speak to children who were intermarrying. He mentioned InterfaithFamily’s work several times. I followed up with some resources we were developing, which he said he would surely use.

In March 2010, I attended another CCAR convention as an exhibitor. This I will not forget – Rabbi Ellenson introduced me to his wife Rabbi Jacqueline Ellenson  by saying that I was “doing God’s work” – and she said she had used InterfaithFamily’s website and resources for a wedding in her own family.

In October 2015, InterfaithFamily hosted an afternoon of learning, and an evening reception honoring Barry Shrage, and me on my retiring as CEO. I was incredibly honored that Rabbi Ellenson spoke at the program. He sent me an outline of his remarks ahead of time – he said that our work had made a positive difference to interfaith couples received a welcoming attitude in contrast to the rejection of the past. And he outlined the remaining challenge – how to include interfaith couples and families while maintaining integrity of the Jewish community – how to maintain a Judaism of hospitality and authenticity.

In his outline Rabbi Ellenson referred to InterfaithFamily as an “Institute.” I thanked him for the promotion, saying we hadn’t been called that before; with his characteristic humor, he replied, “Institute? Organization? What’s in a name?”

I am sorry to say that my last contact with Rabbi Ellenson was five years ago. I asked if he would write an endorsement for my book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, and he agreed. Stuart Matlins had advised me that Rabbi Ellenson was probably the single most highly regarded leader who the desired audience of my book would look up to. So, at the top of the cover of the book, Rabbi Ellenson’s blurb appears: “Must reading for Jewish laypersons as well as Jewish communal and religious leaders. Vital for all who are concerned about the future of Jewish life in North America.”

Since the news of Rabbi Ellenson’s untimely death I’ve seen many well-deserved tributes from many corners of the Jewish world. We have lost a truly great leader. I send sincere sympathy to his wife and children and their families.

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.

Interfaith Inclusion at the Biennials

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[Portions of this essay appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on February 4, 2020 under the title “Reconceptualizing Conversion.”]

Conflicting views about conversion were at the core of what was said – and not said – about interfaith inclusion at the recent biennial conventions of the Conservative and Reform movements.

With 84% of new households that include non-Orthodox Jews being interfaith, it clearly is essential to engage more of those couples if any liberal Jewish activity is to thrive in the future. Experts agree that people engage with a group if they feel included – that they belong. But many Jews think that if partners from different faith backgrounds want to belong, they can and should convert.

Holding up conversion as a condition to inclusion – a persistent view expressed at the biennials – is a bad strategy that will push more couples away at the outset. Instead, we should see conversion “for the right reasons, and at the right time” as an incidental possible future outcome of an approach of full inclusion without condition that will bring more couples in.

That interfaith inclusion was more of a focus at the United Synagogue/Rabbinical Assembly gathering represents a sea change. In the past when I would try to interest Conservative rabbis in InterfaithFamily’s work, most were standoffish because of our position on conversion: when I said it was a wonderful personal choice but if promoted too aggressively would turn people away, the typical reaction was “not good enough.”

With membership declining, attributed by most to the movement’s less than welcoming response to interfaith families, attitudes are changing. Over the past two years, the United Synagogue partnered with InterfaithFamily on a survey about welcoming interfaith families in Conservative synagogues, the subject of a well-attended biennial session.

The most striking development occurred when Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz delivered a passionate statement that Conservative rabbis should be permitted to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples who intend to raise their children Jewish. Rabbi Eliot Cosgrove advocated in response for standing by the sociological and halachic value of inmarriage, and positioning the Conservative movement as the movement of conversion. Acknowledging that many might not convert, he said it is not the movement’s responsibility to serve everyone or to risk standing for nothing.

Rabbi Gardenswartz had this to say about conversion:

It would be great if Christopher [the hypothetical partner of Rachel] would convert.  Conversion would clearly be our preferred option. We would move heaven and earth to encourage him to convert if he were open to it.  But here is what he says…. I love Rachel for who she is.  I want to be loved for who I am.  Maybe in time I might choose to convert, but I want to do it for the right reasons, and in the right time.  The right reason is that this is something that I want to do, that I am drawn to.   The right time is when I feel ready.  I don’t want to do it to make her parents happy, or to make clergy happy, or as a condition to a wedding.  I am happy if our children are raised Jewish.  I would be partners with Rachel in their getting a Jewish education. But I am not ready to convert to Judaism unless I feel it is something I want to do because it feels right to me.

Half of the room enthusiastically applauded after each rabbi spoke, reflecting the movement’s sharp division. Rabbi Gardenswartz noted one outcome of saying no is couples might go to “the fabulous Reform rabbi, of the thriving Reform synagogue, the next town over.” But the situation wasn’t so rosy at the URJ Biennial.

Out of more than 100 learning sessions, only four were focused on interfaith families. At one, I presented the results of a survey the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism (CFRIJ) conducted of interfaith inclusion policies and practices at Reform synagogues. One key takeaway was that leadership positions continue to be largely restricted to Jews; in only 43% of congregations can partners from different faith traditions serve as board members, and in only 21% as officers. Second, while ritual participation has opened up, with 70% of congregations allowing parents from different faith traditions to have or join in an Aliyah at the b’nai mitzvah of their children, it is not clear how many congregations allow partners from a different faith tradition to recite the words of the Torah blessings. Many congregational leaders clearly view conversion as a requirement for full inclusion in leadership and ritual.

Shortly before the Biennial, CFRIJ announced a grass-roots campaign to have Reform congregations propose a resolution at the 2021 URJ Biennial calling for full inclusion of interfaith families and partners from different faith traditions. One rabbi strongly objected, saying that if partners from different faith traditions can do everything Jews can do, Jewish identity would be meaningless and no one would convert, and that it’s like citizenship, where aliens have certain rights but can’t vote.

As I said at the learning session, addressing what inclusion means, maintaining high boundaries and applying the citizenship analogy – essentially, requiring conversion as a condition to full inclusion – is a recipe for decline. At another biennial session, on supporting “Jewish adjacent” members, two partners from different faith traditions detailed their extensive Jewish engagement in both their families’ lives and in their synagogues. Questions from the audience commented that they were more Jewishly engaged than many Jews, and wondered how they felt about conversion. Both indicated that for their very personal reasons, it wasn’t the right time, but it might be in the future.

The most striking development was Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ speech, As Numerous as the Stars of Heaven. After stating that “Jewish life was meant to expand and grow” and urging the Reform movement to enlarge the size of its tent, the speech focused almost entirely on embracing Jews of Color, and ended with a call to action to address antiracism. I am all in favor of embracing Jews of Color, but the impact of doing so is dwarfed by the potential numerical gain available from embracing partners from different faith traditions.

Rabbi Jacobs did make a passing reference to “so many people out there who are Jewishly adjacent… and they are part of this family of ours.” But instead of saying “There are millions of North American Jews … looking for a place to belong,” I wish Rabbi Jacobs had referred to millions of “North American Jews and their partners from different faith backgrounds.” When he said, “It is time that we make every person who comes under our tent feel like they already belong,” I wish he had said “that means partners from different faith backgrounds, too.”

The leaders of liberal Judaism are missing opportunities to explicitly prioritize engaging interfaith families, the defining challenge of our time. Another takeaway from the survey was that congregations do not talk effectively about their interfaith inclusion policies and practices either among their leadership or with their congregants, with only 18% publishing them on their websites.  We need to rise above the lingering ambivalence that conditions inclusion on conversion and instead embrace full inclusion as our goal.

A Three-Generation Yes or a Three-Generation No? Guest Post by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz

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The Center is honored to publish with permission a statement by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz, Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanuel, Newton MA, delivered at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Biennial, December 9, 2019 – 11 Kislev 5780.

Background: I was asked by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to participate in a panel to discuss interfaith marriage. The views in this statement are mine alone. I do not purport to speak for our synagogue, our board, or my colleagues.  This is from me, not from Temple Emanuel.  These are words from my heart, and I recognize  and totally respect that reasonable people can reasonably disagree.  We are deeply blessed to inhabit a religious tradition, and a thriving community, that can handle difference, diversity, and complexity with love and with mutual respect.

Rachel and Christopher walk into my study.  Rachel grew up at Temple Emanuel, a Conservative shul in Newton, MA.  She went to our religious school. Had her Bat Mitzvah here. Remained active in USY.  She always assumed she would marry a Jew.  She only dated Jews. She just didn’t have any mazal in finding a partner.  In fact, often when she told the Jewish men she dated that Judaism was important to her, all too often what she got back in return was disdain.  They would share their bad religious school story.  They could not understand how any adult could take this stuff seriously.

One day, when not even looking, not on an app, not on a blind date, just in the ordinary course of life, she meets Christopher.  Christopher is not Jewish, but he does not see himself as connected to any religious tradition.  He is thoroughly unchurched.

Rachel and Christopher become friends, and then more than friends.  They have a connection that is organic and deep. They fall in love.  While Christopher is not Jewish, he deeply respects Rachel’s Jewishness, and he wants to support her.  They would like to get married, and now Rachel, who has known me for 23 years, and her fiancé come to ask me to officiate at their wedding.  They are both 33 years old.

It would be great if Christopher would convert.  Conversion would clearly be our preferred option. We would move heaven and earth to encourage him to convert if he were open to it.  But here is what he says.

He says: I love Rachel for who she is.  I want to be loved for who I am.  Maybe in time I might choose to convert, but I want to do it for the right reasons, and in the right time.  The right reason is that this is something that I want to do, that I am drawn to.   The right time is when I feel ready.  I don’t want to do it to make her parents happy, or to make clergy happy, or as a condition  to a wedding.  I am happy if our children are raised Jewish.  I would be partners with Rachel in their getting a Jewish education. But I am not ready to convert to Judaism unless I feel it is something I want to do because it feels right to me.

I think Christopher’s position is perfectly reasonable.  I believe officiating at their interfaith wedding is the right thing to do at the Jewish level and at the human level.  Let’s take them in turn.

Why is it the right thing to do at the Jewish level?  Because whatever response we offer Rachel and Christopher is a three-generation response. Don’t miss this point. If you remember nothing else of what I said, remember this:  No is a three-generation no.  Yes is a three-generation yes.

If we say no, what will happen? Does anyone seriously think that Rachel and Christopher will not get married if I say no?  Of course not. There is a 100 % chance of them getting married.  Perhaps they will get married by a justice of the peace; or by a friend or sibling deputized as clergy for the day; secular contexts devoid of Yiddishkeit.   Secular contexts which will not lead into a future of Jewish engagement, especially since their rabbi said no.

The best case, for their Jewish future, is that they will be married by the fabulous Reform rabbi, of the thriving Reform synagogue, the next town over.  That is good for them. Good for their Jewish future. Good for the Reform synagogue.  Bad for us.  Rachel and Christopher will join that Reform synagogue.  When their children are born, they will be educated at that Reform synagogue.  And then it is inevitable, as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, that at some point Rachel’s parents will send a note to our executive director saying:  We are joining the Reform synagogue where our children and grandchildren are members.  Feel free to release the high holiday seats we have had for the last thirty years.   A no is a three-generation no.  A three-generation no will hollow out our communities.  It is already happening. We know this.

Walk into most Conservative shuls on a Shabbat morning. You see a lack of young people. We don’t have engaged young adults.  We need Rachel and Christopher. We need Rachel and Christopher’s children.  We need Rachel’s parents.  If we want Rachel and Christopher, their children, their energy, no is not the way to go. It makes no sense to say you are welcome into our shuls, after you are married by somebody else, when the very fact that our clergy will not marry them makes them feel not welcomed.

What happens if we say yes?  Yes is not a guarantee.  But yes is better, and here is why.  If I officiate at Rachel and Christopher’s wedding, then I will meet with them six times, six one-hour sessions, before the wedding.  That creates connection. That creates relationship. If they live in Boston, they will join our shul.  When they have children, they will attend our schools.  If I say no to their wedding, what they hear, and what they feel, is no. I don’t get the six hours with them. Panting after them after the wedding which I spurned to say, hey, I can put up a mezuzah for you, is not going to work.

But saying no to Rachel and Christopher is also the wrong human move.  For me, this is the beating heart of this whole matter.

Our biggest problem is not intermarriage.  Our biggest problem is the loneliness epidemic in America.  Too many of our children are lonely.  Too many of our children come home to an empty apartment.  Too many of our children have nobody to share their day with.  Too many of our children have nobody to share their life with.  Too many of our children have looked but have not found.   Too many of our children have been dancing at other people’s weddings but not at their own.  Too many of our children have wondered and worried will my day ever come? Rachel’s day came. She found her mensch.  She found her match.  She is genuinely happy.  I am genuinely happy for her. No asterisks. No qualifications. Happy that at long last she has a companion to walk with in life. I want to be there to celebrate with her.

Now I know that many here disagree with me, passionately.  And that is fine.  The last thing I am trying to do is impose my views on anybody.  I just don’t want to have anybody’s views imposed on me.  I don’t want New York deciding these intimate and crucial issues for me.

Let rabbis in the field decide.  The very fact that we are having this conversation suggests multiple points of view and abundant good faith and goodwill.  Some rabbis might be comfortable doing the entire ceremony. Others may prefer to stand with the couple under their chuppah and offer them blessings and words of love but not officiate.  Others might hew to the traditional position.  Let each rabbi figure it out on his, her or their own.

Bet on us. Bet on our moral and religious intuitions. Bet on our love of the Jewish people and humanity. Bet on our ability to do the right thing as we see it.  Thank you.

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.

Progress on Officiation

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InterfaithFamily has released a report on its survey of rabbis’ practices around officiation and co-officiation at weddings of interfaith couples. The highlights of the report have been covered by JTA and the Forward and follow a recent Forward story on Rabbi Joe Black changing his position on officiation after thirty years as a rabbi. The survey results show that a lot of progress has been made towards helping interfaith couples have a positive experience when they seek to have a rabbi present at their weddings – and that there are frontier issues that continue to challenge how rabbis perform their roles.

For as long as I can remember, the accepted wisdom has been that “about half” of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis would officiate for interfaith couples. The last reported survey, in 1995, said it was 47%; the new survey says it is 85%. (Forty-four percent of the members of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association responded to the survey; 23% of the members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.)

And for as long as I can remember, the perception has been that very few or relatively few rabbis would co-officiate at weddings with clergy from other faiths; the last reported survey said it was 13%. There is a lot of ambiguity in what “co-officiation” means; it could mean sharing a service with other clergy, or it could mean being the sole officiant but allowing other clergy to participate; and the big variable seems to be whether the other clergy can make theological references to other religions – which usually means, mention Jesus. In the new survey, 25% said they would co-officiate, and another 20% who said they did not co-officiate said they would permit other clergy to offer a prayer or reading without any theological reference to another religion. In addition, 47% said they would offer a prayer, reading or blessing at a service performed by clergy from another faith.

These figures clearly indicate an opening among rabbis to officiating for interfaith couples. Frontier issues remain that challenge rabbis and may cause discomfort among couples. First, of the rabbis who do officiate, 59% require as a condition of doing so that the couple commit to establish a Jewish home/raise children as Jews. Couples who aren’t “there yet,” who aren’t willing to make that commitment, are likely to have a harder time finding a rabbi to officiate, based on the numbers who are willing to when that is the case. Couples seeking co-officiation, and particular forms of co-officiation, are likely to have a harder time, for the same reason. And couples planning weddings before sundown on Saturday are likely to have a harder time because only 59% will officiate then.

The comments rabbis offered in response to open-ended survey questions were fascinating. Few of the rabbis mentioned Jewish law as a large factor in their decision to officiate or not to officiate. Most of the rabbis mentioned viewing their role as being to facilitate creation of Jewish homes, families and children. One rabbi explained her change of position by saying she realized that her job as a rabbi was “not to make Jewish marriages but to facilitate the creation of Jewish families.”  That is an important distinction that shifts the focus away from halachic requirements for Jewish wedding ceremonies and towards the impact of officiation.

Years ago I visited a Reform rabbi on the North Shore of Chicago who told me that she did not officiate for interfaith couples because of Steven M. Cohen’s research showing that interfaith families were not Jewishly engaged (she has since changed her position). Based on the comments in the new survey, it seems clear to me that rabbis by and large no longer accept that point of view; a number made comments that suggest a serious shift in attitudes about intermarriage.

Thus, many rabbis explained their decision to officiate by referring to their experience with numerous interfaith couples who were creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children. One said, “I believe that interfaith families are a strength in our Jewish community. Many non-Jewish spouses are very committed to raising Jewish children. This has been my own life experience and what I see in my community presently. Interfaith couples are not a threat to Judaism.” I thought this comment was particularly powerful:

My reason NOT to officiate had always been, “It is my job description to create and sanctify new Jewish households.” And I believed that only two Jews could produce such a thing. However, real-life showed me something different and, after nearly ten years of turning down interfaith weddings, I announced my change in policy and began officiating under certain circumstances. I delivered a major sermon on the High Holy Days about my change in practice, and it was the first time that I actually received a standing ovation!

The opposition to co-officiation seems to be based primarily on an assumption rabbis make about what the fact that the couple wants co-offication means. One said, “[I]f there is clergy from other faiths co-officiating, my interpretation is that this couple has decided to create a family and build their home (as the chuppah represents) as one that is not a family that is committed to Judaism.” Another said,

I don’t wish to support a view that Judaism is an “option” in the couple’s life among other “co-existing” or “competing” cultural expressions or life paths. While this approach might be the reality for a given couple, affirming that reality doesn’t align with my sense of rabbinic purpose.

Of course it is also entirely possible that couples may want co-officiation because they want to honor the traditions of both of their families and have not decided what they will ultimately do in terms of their home or family or children being Jewish. It seems clear to me that the main reason for the shift towards being more open to officiation is that rabbis have come to believe that rejection pushes interfaith couples away while officiation leads many to create Jewish homes, families and children. But that logic would equally apply to couples seeking co-officiation, who will be pushed away by rejection and drawn in by the rabbi’s participation.

As the survey report says, officiation and co-officiation issues continue to be important to rabbis – 34% said they would be interested in participating in clergy-only conversations led by InterfaithFamily to discuss those topics.

Variations on Inclusion

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

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

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

But Graubart says his father did not go far enough:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other news, you might want to see:

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