Opening the Gates

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Leading up to and during my vacation there have been three big intermarriage stories in the media. They all revolve around whether, and how, Jewish communities are going to open their gates and draw in interfaith couples and families.

First came a JTA story by Uriel Heilman, The War Against Intermarriage Has Been Lost. Now What? The title pretty much tells the content of the article: Jewish institutions and in particular religious denominations are not “fighting against intermarriage” so much any more; the question now is how to react to the intermarriages that are going to happen; the overall strategy appears to be to engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism; the denominations differ in how far to go in that embrace, and how strongly to push for conversion. Heilman says there has been a shift in attitudes so that intermarriage is viewed as “a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.”

I’m not sure how widespread the shift in attitudes is – there have been lots of recent anti-intermarriage comments from Jewish leaders – and I think it’s unfortunate to see gain only when there is conversion. But the real issue is, what are Jewish institutions and denominations going to do to engage with the intermarried. I would be more interested in seeing a JTA article on the efforts that are underway to do exactly that.

Second was a series of three essays on MyJewishLearning.com about patrilineal descent. A Conservative rabbi, Alana Suskin, in The Non-Jewish Rabbi? The Problem of Patrilineal Descent, tells how badly she feels about not recognizing patrilineal Jews as Jewish in large part because it’s easy to convert. Then an Orthodox rabbi, Ben Greenberg, in Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach, also feels badly, and says that a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel… people of patrilineal descent [should] be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vis-a-vie Jewish law.” But Greenberg says that the Reform rabbis’ decision on patrilineality was a mistake from a “balcony perspective” because of the impact the decision had on recognition of people as Jews by other denominations.

I would say, from what I would respectfully suggest is perhaps a more important “balcony perspective,” what about the impact the decision had on the thousands of patrilineal Jews who are now engaged in Jewish life and community? I couldn’t help but make this connection when reading the Forward’s profile of Angela Buchdahl, First Asian-American Rabbi, Vies for Role at Central Synagogue. Rabbi Buchdahl is an amazing Jewish leader – and yes, a patrilineal Jew. (At least, that is, until her college years; we proudly reprinted Rabbi Buchdahl’s essay originally in Sh’ma, My Personal Story: Kimchee on the Seder Plate, where she says she went to the mikveh at that time to “reaffirm her Jewish legacy.”)

The Reform rabbi who wrote for MJL, Rachel Gurevitz, I think gets it right. In Patrilineal Descent: Why This Rabbi Feels No Angst she first acknowledges Rabbi Greenberg’s concern with complications for klal yisrael but says

[T]his is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.

Rabbi Gurevitz then focuses on what I would agree is most important:

[T]he individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.

The third major story was an excerpt of a “live discussion” on interfaith marriage on Huffington Post, where Rabbi David Wolpe, widely-regarded as one of the most influential rabbis in America, explains why he won’t officiate at weddings of interfaith couples. Contrary to Uriel Heilman’s perceived shift in attitudes towards seeing intermarriage as a potential gain, Rabbi Wolpe actually says (I don’t have a transcript but I made notes when listening to the video) that “invariably,” in an intermarriage, the chances that the children will be raised as Jewish are much less, and that intermarriage “almost always” results in a diminishment of Judaism. That is the first reason he gives for not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples. I would respectfully suggest that the chances of the children being raised as Jewish and the chances of the intermarriage not resulting in “diminishment” would be increased if interfaith couples could find officiating rabbis for their weddings and be spared from hearing Rabbi Wolpe’s rationale.

Rabbi Wolpe also says that he doesn’t officiate because a Jewish wedding involves a marriage according to Jewish law and a person who isn’t Jewish isn’t subject to Jewish law. I can’t argue with any rabbi who takes that position, although I think he goes too far when suggesting that it’s “bad faith” for a rabbi to officiate because he or she isn’t representing Jewish tradition. He says that is true “at least for me” but it comes across as a cheap shot at all of the serious committed rabbis who do officiate for interfaith couples.

The common thread of all of this press is, how open are our gates going to be – in our efforts to engage interfaith couples and families, in who we recognize as Jews, and in for whom we officiate. Those are the key questions. I’m for wide open gates.

Now back to vacation.

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

Rabbi Reverses Interfaith Marriage Policy

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The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles has a powerful article today, Rabbi reverses interfaith marriage policy. The article details how Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, explained in a Rosh Hashanah sermon why he was changing his long-held position and would now officiate at interfaith weddings.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said.

Rosove said he would officiate where the couple is connected to his synagogue, the partner who is not Jewish is not active in another religion, and the couple is committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education.

“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire.’”

The article also quotes Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, explaining her similar change of position:

“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.

The complete article, with Rabbi Rosove’s explanation of his previous reasoning and how and why it changed, is well worth reading.

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

Happy and Proud

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People who know me know that I am rarely satisfied. When something really positive happens, I am usually immediately thinking of what more could be done.

But I want to pause and say that I am as happy and proud as I could be that InterfaithFamily.com is playing a role in what is being described as the first, legal, gay marriage in New York. I have a lot of personal feelings about this that I want to share.

There was controversy when we started our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy and our Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service. People said we would badger rabbis to officiate for interfaith couples – something we have never done. I felt to a certainty that helping interfaith couples have a positive experience finding a rabbi to officiate or co-officiate at their weddings – something we have consistently done, at a current rate of 175 couples a month – would be a positive factor towards future Jewish engagement of those couples. I’m convinced it was the smartest move our organization ever made.

Ten years ago when IFF was founded I confess that I wasn’t sure how I felt about gay marriage. Then I got to know Sue Edelman and I got to know Rabbi Lev Baesh and thankfully it became a no-brainer to me that same-sex couples deserve marriage equality. I also learned that most people say that even more LGBT than straight relationships involving Jews are also interfaith relationships, and we have always published content aimed at supporting gay interfaith relationships (check out our new LGBT Resource Page), and that was clearly the right thing to do too.

A year ago I made a presentation to the Jewish Federation of North America’s planners group with my friend Idit Klein, the executive director of the leading Jewish LGBT advocacy organization, Keshet. Idit and I had a friendly debate about whether LGBT Jews or Jews in interfaith relationships were more marginalized in the Jewish community. You could say that IFF’s over-arching goal is to not have interfaith couples marginalized in the Jewish community. If IFF can help gay interfaith couples overcome the extra hurdles they face, so much the better.

Last Wednesday when I saw Dee Smith’s officiation referral request and read that they were going to be the first gay couple married in New York I went running out of my office with excitement. We quickly put Lev, who directs our Resource Center for Jewish Clergy, in touch with the couple. We thought he would be the perfect rabbi for the couple and that they would love him, they apparently did, and I am thrilled for Lev that he will be having a role in making history on July 24.

The big deal here is that there is going to be legal gay marriage in New York. I was proud to live in Massachusetts when our state legalized gay marriage, I was proud when my childhood friend Richard Palmer wrote the Connecticut Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in that state, and I was disappointed when the electorate in Maine where I spend a lot of time voted against it. I hope that New York has turned the tide in favor of marriage equality.

But it is also a big deal for the Jewish community that the first legal gay marriage in New York involves an interfaith couple who sought to have a rabbi officiate at their wedding. And I am very happy and proud that our organization was available and able to make that happen.

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

Chelsea and Marc in the Jewish News Again

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Each year the Forward, the only national Jewish newspaper, publishes a list called the “Forward 50” which they describe this year as a list of “men and women who have made a significant impact on the Jewish story in a Jewish way.”

Way back in 2001, I made the list, to my mother’s everlasting pride – she thought it was a list of the fifty most important Jews. I had criticized one of the leading critics of intermarriage as subjectively biased, and I think the Forward staff liked the controversy.

As usual, the list this year is entertaining reading – in particular this year because they added a 51st space, for two people: “Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, high-profile intermarriage.”

If you read this blog you know that we’ve had a lot of comment on the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, starting back when their engagement was announced, continuing with speculation about what kind of officiant they would have, and most recently with comment on the not very enthusiastic reaction of Jewish leaders to their wedding because a rabbi co-officiated with a Methodist minister before Shabbat had ended.

According to the Forward, the wedding “reinvigorated the intermarriage conversation for a new generation of American Jews.” Chelsea’s wedding to “an involved Jew… was a validating first in many ways” referring to the photos of a chuppah, a ketubah, and the groom in a tallis and yarmulke – “The Clintons and Mezvinskys telegraphed to the world that Judaism has nothing to hide.”

In explaining why they went beyond 50, clearly the controversy was again important: Chelsea and Marc are included “For the hot debate this couple caused about who is a Jew and what role nuptials play in religion, for how they captivated the American imagination and energized the conversation around Jewish identity.”

Next week I will be speaking at a session at the Jewish Federation of North America’s annual convention on the question, “Can we encourage in-marriage and welcome interfaith families?” We had a planning call for the session today and the other panelists did not seem thrilled to hear that I plan to bring up the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding in my presentation. But I still feel strongly that the tepid reaction of Jewish leaders missed an opportunity to extend an enthusiastic welcome to a prominent couple that could have helped to inspire many other young couples to consider Jewish traditions for their own weddings and lives together. I’m glad that the Forward has kept the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding in the spotlight.

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

Question: Can Jews Encourage In-Marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families

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A proposal I made for a workshop at the annual convention of the Jewish Federations of North America has been accepted. In November, I will be speaking before an audience of important Jewish leaders on this question: Can We Encourage In-Marriage and Welcome Interfaith Families? The session will involve presentations by me and my ideological nemesis, Steven M. Cohen, and then responses by some of the top federation executives in the country – Barry Shrage from Boston, Jay Sanderson from Los Angeles and Steve Rakitt from Atlanta. The panel will be moderated by Alisa Doctoroff, Chair of the UJA Federation of New York.

I’ve decided to seek help in shaping my presentation from InterfaithFamily.com’s community of readers. I have fifteen minutes to convey our position on a complicated question. I don’t want to spend a lot of time citing statistics, I want to tell stories – your stories – about how expression of preference for in-marriage affects interfaith couples. So please post your comments below.

I’d like to give three reference points for background. In an article I wrote for IFF then years ago, How to Talk to Your Kids about Interfaith Dating, I basically took the position that it was OK for Jews to say the following to young adults: We would like to see you live a Jewish life; if you want to, the statistics show that your chances are far greater if you marry someone who is Jewish; it is possible, but it isn’t so easy, to have a Jewish family and to raise Jewish children in an intermarriage. I’ve also said many times that it is not OK for Jews to say that intermarriage is wrong, or bad, or a violation of Jewish norms, because that message won’t deter the half of young adults who will intermarry anyway, but it will deter them from engaging Jewishly because people won’t go where they feel disapproval. So I’ve said in the past that it is possible to encourage in-marriage, but only in a very careful and limited way.

Recently Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, took the position that Jewish leaders should fully shed the preference for in-marriage. He said that “preference for one type of family over another inevitably must lead to a lesser welcoming for intermarried families. You simply cannot say, ‘We welcome everybody equally, but we prefer one kind over another.’” Paul did add, however, that “This is not to say that we can’t discuss the challenges of raising Jewish children when one parent is not Jewish; what I’m talking about is the open preference for one type of couple over another, even when both may choose to raise Jewish children.”

Finally, I blogged recently about a report that  Steven M. Cohen had said that Jews and Jewish organizations are already plenty welcoming of interfaith couples. In response, I received a very powerful message from an individual that I posted on the blog (scroll down to July 21, 2010 comment). Here is part of what she said:

For all practical purposes, I am the ideal interfaith partner. I gave into everything, gave up all the religious traditions of my family and my childhood, and accepted that I was always going to be fundamentally different and separate from my children. And yet, the message that I get is that it is never enough, that I am simply wrong for not being Jewish, and I am a threat and a second class citizen. When I hear rabbis stress the evils of interfaith marriage in synagogue, how does Dr. Cohen think I feel? How do my children feel, knowing that their father was considered wrong, and that he married an unacceptable person? Is it so much to ask that yes, they soft pedal the admonitions and prejudice against intermarriage, given that we are advocating and living Jewish choices?

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? Should Jews and Jewish leaders fully shed the preference for in-marriage because it is not possible to welcome the non-preferred intermarried? Or is it possible to state a preference and still be welcoming – and if so, how? And if you were the person with fifteen minutes to make our case, what would you say?

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

A New Year of Creative Ferment

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Summer ended this weekend and I was thinking it would be nice to ease into the Jewish New Year, spend some time quietly introspecting on the past year and what’s to come. Instead all signs are for a year of creative ferment in attitudes in the intermarriage world, started perhaps by my August op-ed in the Forward, The Missing Mazel Tov, which expressed my dismay at the reaction of Jewish religious leaders to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, and continuing in the debate between Rabbis Leon Morris and Evan Moffic over weddings on Shabbat.

Our friend Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, has written one of the most important essays in years, God’s Covenant, Judaism and Interfaith Marriage. His essay in the Huffington Post provides a well-reasoned theoretical/intellectual basis for why Jewish leaders should have embraced Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky.

Almost nowhere among Jewish leadership — even in the liberal movements — has there been a full shedding of the preference for in-marriage. And that preference for one type of family over another inevitably must lead to a lesser welcoming for intermarried families.

You simply cannot say, “We welcome everybody equally, but we prefer one kind over another.” Maybe the difference in the way people are treated doesn’t always manifest on the surface level, but it bubbles up. This is not to say that we can’t discuss the challenges of raising Jewish children when one parent is not Jewish; what I’m talking about is the open preference for one type of couple over another, even when both may choose to raise Jewish children.

I urge you to read the entire essay. Here’s the conclusion:

Over the last quarter-century, nearly as many American Jews have married non-Jews as fellow Jews. Today, there are more intermarried than in-married households in the U.S., perhaps by as large a ratio as 60%-40%. The high rate of intermarriage can be seen as the defining opportunity to transform the Jewish community from an insular, tribal entity to a diverse and expanding peoplehood based on key common causes and beliefs. But first we have to make sure our common causes and beliefs are the right ones to be shouting from the mountaintops (hint: “don’t intermarry” isn’t one of them), and then we have to let go of the fear and begin genuinely welcoming as equal all who would select Judaism for themselves or their children.

Next, Rabbi James Ponet has written a very important piece for Tablet, Into the Jewish People: The rabbi who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding on his journey to accepting intermarriage. True to his word, Rabbi Ponet does not talk about the wedding in his piece, but instead describes the evolution in his attitudes over the course of nearly forty years. Rabbi Ponet clearly is a very thoughtful rabbi with a very serious respect for Jewish tradition. Before becoming Yale Hillel director in 1981, he writes, he

had come to understand that halachah reflects not so much the truth of God as the pragmatics of attempting to live in the world connected to divine norms whose claim, by definition, eludes one’s ability fully to realize. This understanding has guided me as a practicing rabbi as I have been called upon to make practical decisions, especially in areas where there is no precedent. Like intermarriage.

Until five years ago, he worked with intermarrying couples do design a ceremony but would not officiate himself. Then

I began to acknowledge that my legal scruple about officiating or co-officiating at such a wedding was not consistent with my willingness to discount many other traditional norms. The halachah’s non-recognition of a particular action had never restrained me from praying in an egalitarian minyan where a woman might serve as cantor, for example, or joining in a service at which instruments were played on Shabbat….

My problem with intermarriage, I now realize, is based on legitimate fears about the survival of our people, period. But what if our people is in fact evolving into new forms of identity and observance? What if we are indeed generating new models of Jewish commitment and engagement with the world? …

Again, I urge you to read the entire essay. Here is the conclusion:

I submit that it is time for Judaism to formulate a thoughtful, traditionally connected ceremony through which a Jew may enter into marriage with a non-Jew, a prescribed way or ways by which a rabbi may officiate or co-officiate at such a wedding. I believe we are the ever-evolving people and that there will always be among us those who are rigorously attached to ancient forms. I believe it is critical that there will also always be among us those who vigorously dream and search for new vessels into which to decant the sam chayyim, the living elixir of Torah. If we only look backward as we move into the future, we will surely stumble. We need scouts, envoys, chalutzim, pioneers to blaze new ways into the ancient-newness of Judaism.

Perhaps for example we might note that there may be stages of entrance into and levels of engagement with the Jewish people, which might find liturgical expression both in the wedding ceremony and at other lifecycle events going forward. After all, becoming a Jew, like becoming a person, takes a lifetime. And just as we want to be able to invite our ancestors to the weddings and brisses and bat mitvahs of the present generation, we want our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to feel drawn to the love and joy of being connected to the Jewish people. We want them to know that we have not forgotten that the Jewish people is “a covenant people, a light of nations.”

Next is a news article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, about Rabbi Noa Kushner (daughter of our own Karen Kushner), Judaism for Gen X: Get your Jewish on. Not ostensibly about intermarriage, Rabbi Kushner’s approach may be exactly what would appeal to young interfaith couples. Her motto is “Do Jewish stuff” and her goal is to get people to explore Judaism beyond traditions like services and seders, particularly the young families in her Marin County community. She created Nita (a project of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael), a group made up of primarily Gen Xers who meet periodically and informally for occasions from monthly Pop-Up Shabbats (featuring great music and takeout so no one needs to cook), to Havdallah House Parties and Storahtelling. She also created Lift Kits – a portable collection of items (including Shabbat candles, organic soap, a hot pink mezuzah and a directory of Jewish organizations) designed for High Holy Day preparation and to help people celebrate traditions wherever they happen to be. Here are some of Rabbi Kushner’s comments, and again I urge you to read the entire article:

Gen X’s less-than-enthusiastic response to synagogue life simply means there’s a new generation stepping forward, one that needs to figure out how “do Jewish” on its own terms.

There is a big distinction between somebody’s religion by birth and what they are willing to do. We are careful to note: Anybody can do Jewish stuff. I am not interested in lineage and pedigree. I am only interested in what someone is willing to do right now, Jewishly speaking.

Similar to yoga’s metamorphosis, if we want people to grow Jewishly, we need to encourage them to do Jewish. I am not asking anyone to sign on the dotted line or join a group. There is no identity shift.

Just a couple of other things to mention, with Rosh Hashanah imminent. Reboot has started a national project, 10Q, that asks people to answer a question a day online for ten days during the High Holidays, beginning on September 8. Visit their website to participate.

Finally, and I’ll have more to say about this later on – I have been nominated for the Jewish Community Hero award, given by the Jewish Federations of North America. They start with an online voting contest; the top twenty vote getters are then judged by a panel, which selects one winner and four other honorees, each of whom receives a grant for their organization, all announced at the General Assembly in November. Please vote for me on their website. You can vote every twelve hours, so vote early and often!

Right now I’m number 17 in the voting. I don’t care about winning an award for myself. But the JFNA hasn’t talked about intermarriage much in the past. I wish the other candidates well – but most of them come from the traditional Jewish world. It would be great if the federation world recognized not me personally but the cause of engaging interfaith families in Jewish life – especially when we are in a time where a new, heavily intermarried generation needs to figure out how to “do Jewish” on its own terms, when we are evolving new models of Jewish commitment and engagement with the world, and when we have an opportunity to transform the Jewish community from an insular, tribal entity to a diverse and expanding community based on key common causes and beliefs.

To all who are welcoming in the New Year, I wish that it is a happy, healthy and sweet one for you and your families. Shana Tova!

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

The Significance of Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding

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In my last blog post, The Jewish World Reacts to the Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding — and It Isn’t Pretty,  I said I was still reflecting on the significance of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, and would have more to say about it.

Well I did reflect on it and I wrote an op-ed and the Forward published it today: The Missing ‘Mazel Tov.’

I would love to quote the entire piece here but please read it on the Forward site. In a nutshell, I think the significance of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is because of their celebrity the way they conducted their wedding could inspire many other interfaith couples to seriously consider incorporating Jewish practices in their weddings – like Chelsea and Marc did so prominently – and hopefully in their lives together after their weddings. In addition, I think it was very fortunate that Chelsea and Marc were able to find a rabbi of the stature of James Ponet to co-officiate the wedding with a Methodist minister.

Instead of an enthusiastic, hearty “Mazel tov,” the reaction of Jewish leaders, as detailed in my last blog post, was to pronounce the wedding as “not a Jewish event.” This was the worst possible response to express, because it can only serve to discourage and push away not just Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, but the thousands of other interfaith couples who are watching.

Because of space limitations, the Forward cut two paragraphs, which I’ll include here:

“There is a serious disconnect between what young couples want and what our religious leaders want to provide. Thirty to 45% of the requests made to InterfaithFamily.com’s Jewish Clergy Officiation Referral Service are for rabbis who co-officiate. In recent research done for us, rabbis who do not officiate reported overwhelmingly that they are able to successfully tell couples they can’t officiate without alienating them; but interfaith couples emphasized that a rabbis’ refusals to officiate are likely to turn them away from their congregations.”

“JTA quotes Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen as saying that we should celebrate the marriage of these individuals, but not the type of marriage it represents. The head of the Conservative movement said “intermarriage is not ideal” but we “must welcome interfaith families.” This have-it-both-ways response simply won’t cut it with young couples. If you were Chelsea Clinton, considering whether to get more involved in Jewish life, how would you feel?”

I hope you will read the entire piece and welcome your comments and suggestions here.

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

The Jewish World Reacts to the Clinton-Mezvinsky Wedding — and It Isn’t Pretty

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It’s been a long week at InterfaithFamily.com, starting with the news last Saturday night that Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky had a rabbi and a minister at their wedding with very evident Jewish traditions. In this post I’m going to try to just summarize the coverage. I’m still reflecting on the significance of it all, and will have more to say about that.

At the beginning of the week the media coverage from the Jewish angle focused on what happens next for newly married interfaith couples. On Monday there was a story on ABCNews.com, Chelsea Clinton’s Interfaith Marriage Challenge: Kids, Holidays, Soul-Searching.The writer, Luchina Fisher, noted that the wedding featured many Jewish traditions: the couple married under a chuppah or canopy; the groom wore a yarmulke or skull cap and tallis or prayer shawl; friends and family recited the Seven Blessings typically read at traditional Jewish weddings. She then quoted me:

“To me that’s an indication that the groom identifies Jewishly,” Edmund Case, the head of InterfaithFamily.com told ABCNews.com. “It’s also apparent that Chelsea must have been fine with it or it wouldn’t have happened. Also, given the prominence of her family, they must have been accepting of it.”

Cathy Grossman also had a story on Monday, Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding reflects mix of religions in USA. Cathy noted,

The website InterfaithFamily.com offers DVDs for a Love and Religion course created by Marion Usher, a marriage and family counselor who has run workshops for interfaith couples for 16 years at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C. DVD sales soared after Usher began offering advice online timed to the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding.

On Tuesday I had a second post on the Huffington Post, where I tried to answer the question, Chelsea Clinton’s Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next? Later on Tuesday, though, the coverage from the Jewish perspective turned away from what couples like Chelsea and Marc face, and started reporting on negative reactions to the wedding in the Jewish world. Jacob Berkman had a story for JTA, which is starting to be widely re-printed in local Jewish papers:  Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding raises questions about intermarriage. After a great introduction – “Is it possible that the first iconic Jewish picture of the decade is of an interfaith marriage? Photographs taken Saturday show the Jewish groom wearing a yarmulke and a crumpled tallit staring into the eyes of his giddy bride under a traditional Jewish wedding canopy with a framed ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, in the background.” – Jacob starts quoting Jewish leaders expressing ambivalence.

First, Steven M. Cohen tries to have it both ways: “we should celebrate the particular marriage of these two fine individuals, but we ought not celebrate the type of marriage it constitutes and represents.” Then Rabbi Eric Yoffie reportedly told JTA, “The Reform movement frowns upon its rabbis conducting weddings on the Sabbath.” “Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said intermarriage is certainly ‘not ideal,’ but that the Conservative movement in 2008 decided that it must welcome interfaith families and ‘help their spouses along their spiritual journeys.’” At least Rabbi Yoffie also said, “I look at the couple and my response is, ‘I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religion and tradition and second, as a Jew and rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism.”

It was left to me to make an unequivocal statement: “Case said that accepting this marriage and welcoming this intermarried family into the Jewish fold could help pave the way for the Jewish community to be more accepting of others.” I was also quoted as saying that “the Clinton wedding certainly had stirred interest in intermarriage, noting that traffic to his website was up 35 percent in July compared to the same month last year. “

Also on Tuesday, Julie Wiener put up her article that would appear in the New York Jewish Week, which focuses on co-officiation. Julie says that “Even as the number of liberal rabbis willing to preside at weddings of Jews to gentiles appears to be growing, co-officiation with clergy of another faith, while hardly unheard of, remains taboo.” Julie quotes me:

“The mainstream of the Reform rabbinate is not with co-officiation yet,” says Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, which since 2007 has run a free referral service for interfaith couples seeking clergy to officiate at their wedding. Despite the mainstream opposition, 40 percent of the almost 400 rabbis and cantors in IFF’s database (some ordained by the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries, some by nondenominational ones) are willing to co-officiate, and in the past six months 31.5 percent of the approximately 120 couples each month using the service have sought someone to co-officiate. (In 2009, 43 percent of couples contacting IFF were seeking someone to co-officiate.) “I’ve had Reform rabbis say they don’t want to have anything to do with us because our referral service” provides co-officiating rabbis to those couples who want them, Case says.

Julie interviewed Rabbi Ellen Dreyfuss, the president of the Reform rabbis’ association, who said “The rabbi’s presence and officiation at a wedding is reflective of a commitment on the part of the couple to have a Jewish home and a Jewish family, so co-officiation with clergy of another faith does not reflect that commit. It reflects, rather, indecision on the part of the couple… Religiously it’s problematic because [the bride and groom are] trying to create a both and there’s no such thing as a both.” Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, also says that “having a co-officiated ceremony points in the direction of a home that won’t be primarily Jewish.”

As Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of JOI aptly points out, however, “the common assumption is that when a couple wishes a rabbi to co-officiate, the couple is going to bring up the future children in two faiths or the couple has not made a decision…. That’s probably a premature conclusion to make.” And I said, about Rabbi James Ponet, who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, “I think it’s really significant that a highly regarded rabbi would be willing to co-officiate and before Shabbat was over. I think it’s positive too. Maybe it will have some influence.”

Julie gives our own Rabbi Lev Baesh the last word:

Lev Baesh, a Reform rabbi and CCAR member who is the director of InterfaithFamily.com’s resource center for Jewish clergy and oversees the referral service, says he co-officiates because, “My view is that any Jew who wants Jewish ritual in their life should have it.”
Even if a couple hasn’t yet decided whether or not to have a Jewish household, “the wedding is a great opportunity to show Judaism is something that has meaning and value for them.”
The hope is that if they have a good experience, then “down the road” these couples will get more engaged in Jewish life.
“I know that I’m not just hoping this, because I also do a lot of baby namings,” Rabbi Baesh says.

Finally, on Thursday, Allison Gaudet Yarrow at the Forward wrote Wedding Blues: Rabbis At Odds With Their Rules, which again focuses on co-officiation. Yarrow’s summary: “Top leaders from all the major streams of Judaism – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist – were at pains to stress that the Sabbath day nuptials of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky were not a Jewish event.” She quoted me as saying,

In his work with Interfaithfamily.com, which offers, among other things, a clergy referral service, CEO Ed Case sees a disconnect between rabbis who feel they can navigate the interfaith issue without offending interfaith couples and those particular couples’ experience of interacting with rabbis who won’t perform or recognize interfaith unions.
“For better or for worse, what couples want and what lay people want are different than where the rabbinate is. People don’t feel bound by requirements or traditions, and they want to do what they want to do,” he said.
Case hoped interfaith couples would look at the Jewish rituals in the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding and think, “If this is good enough for Chelsea Clinton, it’s good enough for me.”

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

The News is Out: Co-officiation for Chelsea and Marc

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The New York Times reported that Rabbi James Ponet, the Yale Hillel director, and Reverend William Shillady, a Methodist minister, co-officiated at the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky on July 31. According to the Times, at 7:23 p.m. the family made an announcement via e-mail. The Times said that the ceremony “included elements from both traditions: friends and family reading the Seven Blessings, which are typically recited at traditional Jewish weddings following the vows and exchange of rings.” Cathy Grossman, on USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog, reported the story at 8:57 pm, relying on the account in the Times. You can see the first photos, of Chelsea and Marc (with a clearly visible yarmulke, and the couple with the Clintons, here. The Times has a photo of the couple with Marc wearing a tallis.

We’ll have more to say in the days to come. Now that the wedding is over, it will be very interesting to see what decisions about religious life this prominent couple makes in the future.

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

 

Mazel Tov in Advance to Chelsea and Marc

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With the big event happening Saturday night, this is our last chance to send a Mazel tov in advance to Chelsea and Marc. With the air space above Rhinebeck cleared, and guests reportedly required to turn in their camera phones, we don’t know when word will leak out about the ceremony and who officiated – but eventually it will.

Our friend Rabbi Mayer Selekman gave a great interview on the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia in which he explained the meaning of Jewish wedding traditions – it’s worth watching.

Amidst all the gossip about who is attending, what it is costing, who designed the dress, there have been some very interesting blog posts about the significance of this wedding and marriage for the Jewish community. Rabbi Irwin Kula had an extremely thoughtful (as usual) post in the Huffington Post. In this powerful message Kula moves from the fact of the wedding of a prominent interfaith couple to the need for faiths and groups to emphasize not more group members but rather wisdom and practice drawn from their tradition that helps people construct lives that are ethical, vital and loving.

The Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding is a perfect expression of the emerging American religious and social landscape in which one’s inherited group identity bears little or no significance on one’s marriage…

What is unprecedented — wonderful for some and horrifying to others — is that in this era no one needs to reject his or her identity to cross these century-old boundaries. Multiple identities… is the new reality.

We Americans… customize our religious identities — less in terms of some group-belonging need, creedal purity, or theological consistency, and more in order to get a job done — and in doing so, we find greater meaning and purpose.

[Y]ou cannot have people mixing religious ideas and practices… [and] creating families with diverse inheritances… and expect existing religious institutions to be unaffected… Fewer and fewer Americans are getting religion in the cathedrals. They are getting what they need to get their spiritual/meaning-making job done in the bazaar…

Religious leaders … will need to be concerned less with creating good upstanding members of their group (theologically or sociologically) and more with providing wisdom and practice drawn from their tradition that is accessible, usable, and good enough to get the job done: helping “mixers, blenders, benders, and switchers” construct ever-changing lives that are more ethical, vital, and loving within their already-existing webs of relations.

“On Faith” at the Washington Post has run four pieces by our colleague Dr. Marion Usher that offer great advice to intermarrying couples from her standpoint as a psychologist with years of experience working with interfaith couples. The first piece is about choosing a “lead religion” – an interesting approach that Dr. Usher has developed and recommends; the  second piece is about where interfaith couples can go for help, the third piece is about raising children in an interfaith household, and the fourth piece is about developing a solid relationship foundation. I contributed the fifth piece in the series, on what the elements of a Jewish wedding ceremony symbolize and mean.

On Faith has also assembled an amazing panel of commentaries. The comments from the rabbis on the panel unfortunately express a lot of ambivalence towards intermarriage. The head of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick, says:

In itself, intermarriage may not be ideal for the Jewish community – but it is a reality that we cannot afford to ignore. Ultimately, our goal must be the creation of strong, committed Jewish families. And if we can achieve that goal through both in-marriage and intermarriage, then we must make keruv, outreach and welcome, a priority for our synagogues and communities.

Popular Rabbi David Wolpe in a piece titled “A Blessing and a Threat” says:

Love vaults over boundaries and that is often both beautiful and compelling. Much can be lost along the way however, and it is difficult to keep both the integrity of a tradition and its universal messages. As with all great blessings, the blessings of America exact a considerable cost.

Rabbi Jack Moline says “I oppose intermarriage before the fact. After the fact, I support marriage.”

Finally, back to who is officiating – Rabbi Jason Miller says “I have it on good authority that Chelsea’s wedding this Saturday night at Astor Mansion in Rhinebeck, NY will be co-officiated by both a rabbi and a Methodist minister.” I asked Rabbi Miller what his authority was and he said a “colleague” had talked to the minister but the colleague wouldn’t tell him who the minister was and the minister had signed a non-disclosure agreement. So it looks like we’re just going to have to wait.

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