Beyond Welcoming? Not So Fast

|

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving from Welcoming and Hospitality, to Inclusion

|

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

|

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Radical About Radical Inclusion?

|

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas

|

This essay was originally published in the Forward.

This month, many interfaith families are celebrating Christmas.

Unfortunately, there won’t be many expressions of “Happy Holidays” coming from the Jewish world.

Recently, Gil Troy described the very existence of intermarriage as “the great unspoken yet perennial source of anguish haunting the Jewish world…American Jewry’s great divider,” and said that “no Jewish community could ever survive a 70% intermarriage rate.” A Canadian rabbi described intermarriage as “an internal threat to the Jewish community.”

Some scholars even find interfaith celebrations particularly threatening. In a recently-published volume, Sylvia Barack Fishman wrote about the importance of “unambiguously Jewish households” and questioned what “raising Jewish children” means to intermarried couples. This was a continuation of her earlier assertion, in Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage, that interfaith families who “incorporate Christian holiday festivities” into their lives fail to transmit Jewish identity to their children.

Fishman says this is the case even when the families interpret these festivities as not having religious significance to them.

But when considering the significance of holiday celebrations, isn’t it essential to understand what the festivities mean for those doing the actual celebrating?

Holidays, of course, have multiple meanings, and most interfaith families view their Christmas celebrations very differently than Fishman does. To most interfaith families who celebrate Christmas, these celebrations are secular celebrations of their heritage. They are not religious or “anti-Jewish” ones and are an important part of their interfaith identities.

*

Earlier this month, Michael David Lucas argued that it is hypocritical for liberal Jews to celebrate Hanukkah, which he defined as a celebration of “religious fundamentalism and violence.” But he himself ended up choosing to celebrate it for “the possibility of light in dark times, the importance of even the smallest miracles,” and he might as well have chosen to celebrate it for the value of religious freedom.

Like Hanukkah, Christmas is susceptible to multiple meanings. While a religious Christmas centers around celebrating the birth of the divine Jesus, that’s not what the celebrations mean to virtually all of the interfaith families who partake.

InterfaithFamily has conducted ten years’ of December holiday surveys which found that, of interfaith families raising their children as Jews, about half had Christmas trees in their own homes and virtually all said their Christmas celebrations were not religious in nature or confusing to their children.

The important 2016 Millennial Children of Intermarriage study confirmed what InterfaithFamily’s surveys have shown: “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage”; they recall holiday celebrations as “desacralized” family events without religious content, special as occasions for the gathering of extended family; “some indicated that celebration of major Christian holidays felt much more like an American tradition than tied to religion.”

A Jewish educator whose child attended a Jewish day school once wrote for InterfaithFamily that a Christmas tree is not “outright Christian,” a statement about the holiday’s meaning that has stayed with me ever since.

She had a tree in her home because her husband “wanted our boys to appreciate the traditions from both sides of the family without necessarily identifying with anything outright Christian…As we see it, our job is to make our family’s Jewish identity so natural, so much a part of us, that it’s not threatened by the presence of a Grand Fir in our living room for one month out of the year.”

In my forthcoming book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I outline three invitations that can be extended to interfaith families, which are relevant year round but especially poignant this time of year.

The first is to engage in Jewish traditions— including Jewish holidays — because they teach compelling values and can serve as a framework to help people live lives of meaning and to raise caring children. Celebrating Hanukkah as a symbol of light, miracles and religious freedom is a prime example.

But when interfaith families are involved, we also have to address Christmas. In 2011, an argument comparable to Mr. Lucas’s was made by two different writers, who argued that interfaith families who celebrate Hanukkah should not also celebrate Christmas, because the meaning of Hanukkah is to honor Jews who resisted practicing any religion other than Judaism.

In a post on InterfaithFamily’s blog, one writer responded:

“I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism…. The idea that my childhood—being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father—somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child. Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community — which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.”

The antipathy that a decreasing but significant number of Jews still have for Christmas attributes a particular, religious meaning to the holiday and expresses a desire to hold tight to traditional behaviors without modification. But at this point, half or more of young Jewish adults have one Jewish parent, and almost all of them grew up celebrating Christmas similar to the way they celebrate Thanksgiving: As a secular celebration of family and food.

When Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, she was asked at her confirmation hearing where she was on Christmas Day. She joked, “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

It was funny, but we are way past the time when all Jews are at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. Probably half or more are having Christmas dinner with their relatives who aren’t Jewish. We shouldn’t decry that fact, or shy away from acknowledging it, or ascribe a meaning to it that the participants don’t share.

Successfully encouraging interfaith families to engage in Jewish life necessitates that we overcome any lingering discomfort with interfaith families celebrating Christmas. It’s okay to say “happy holidays” to them this week.

More Negative, More Positive

|

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

Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Book

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

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

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

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

Conservative Movement

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

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

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

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

Remembering Rachel Cowan

|

The Jewish world lost an extraordinary leader at the end of August when Rabbi Rachel Cowan died. Most of the much-deserved tributes have focused on her contributions in the areas of social justice, Jewish healing, and Jewish spirituality and mindfulness. I would like to highlight something that has received less attention: Rachel Cowan’s leadership in efforts to engage interfaith families Jewishly.

As Sandee Brawarsky wrote in the Jewish Week,

Rabbi Cowan successfully channeled her own life challenges and experiences into innovations in Jewish life for others — always a few steps ahead: A Jew by choice, she did outreach and teaching to those considering intermarriage and conversion, and wrote a book with Paul, Mixed Blessings: Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks in an Interfaith Marriage.

She was indeed a few steps ahead. Mixed Blessings appeared in 1988, not long after Egon Mayer’s Marriage Between Christians and Jews and the Reform movement built up its outreach efforts. Reading Mixed Blessings had a big impact on me. Rachel understood that interfaith couples wanted to understand and learn from the experiences of other couples like them. She understood that telling their stories, as she did in the book, and putting them together with other couples in structured discussion groups, as she did in her outreach work, would satisfy that need – and lead to more interfaith families being more Jewishly engaged.

I was honored and privileged to know Rachel. My first job in the Jewish world was at Jewish Family & Life! starting in 1999 as publisher of its InterfaithFamily.com web magazine. I got to know Rachel as a funder of JFL at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and she was always personally supportive from that point forward (the photo accompanying this post was taken at the 2007 Slingshot conference).

In November 2002 I wrote an essay for the Forward about how the Jewish world should respond to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey’s findings of continued high intermarriage. I referred to Rachel having said that “people can tell when their welcome in genuine.” All of these years later, after much back and forth about how to respond to intermarriage, I can see now that Rachel had zeroed in on the most important thing that is needed to engage interfaith families: attitudes and policies that are radically inclusive of them.

I will always treasure an email exchange I had with Rachel in December 2016. In response to a message about my transitioning from InterfaithFamily’s leadership, Rachel wrote “kol hakavod to you Ed.  You had a dream, and you built it, and it is profoundly influencing contemporary American Jewish life!” I responded with “Thanks, that means a lot, coming from you. I am trying to write a book – when the time comes, I hope you’ll consider writing something for the cover.” Rachel responded with “no doubt I will.” Sadly, my forthcoming book was not far enough along to send to Rachel for comment before her terrible illness progressed too far.

I feel profound loss yet am inspired by how exceptional Rachel was in her many areas of interest and in the great impact she had on so many people both personally and more broadly. She belongs in a rarified league, along with Rabbi Alexander Schindler and Egon Mayer, as a pioneer in efforts to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. May her memory always be for a blessing.

Growing Inclusivity

|

The intermarriage news since the High Holidays has continued to be positive for the most part. I was especially pleased to read Rabbi Micah Streiffer’s Yom Kippur sermon announcing that he was going to start officiating at weddings for interfaith couples. I say “especially” because Rabbi Streiffer is in Toronto, Canada and as far as I know he is the first Reform rabbi there to officiate. I remember many years when InterfaithFamily was not able to refer people in Toronto to any “mainstream” rabbis, so this is a welcome breakthrough.

I also say “especially” because Rabbi Streiffer cites the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion in which Moses says that everyone present is entering into the covenant with God – and Rabbi Streiffer explicitly says that includes “the ger, the non-Jew.” That’s an argument I first made back in 2000. It’s very affirming to have a rabbi endorse of that view. It’s an exemplary inclusive sermon that is well worth reading.

A second great item was an article by InterfaithFamily’s Stacie Garnett-Cook, Interfaith Inclusion: One Year to Lasting Change, who asked, “What should an organization actually do to become more inclusive? Many organizations say that they are welcoming, but do our actions and words match our intentions?” InterfaithFamily’s new Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI), modeled on the Keshet Leadership Project and funded by the Covenant Foundation, supports leaders in organizations who create and implement action plans to accomplish those goals. The article describes the program design and underlying theory, as well as the organizations that participated in the first year.

The importance of being truly inclusive in attracting and engaging interfaith families in Jewish life and community can’t be over-estimated. I hope many more Jewish organization will seriously consider participating in this initiative.

I was honored to be included in Moment Magazine’s Symposium, Is Intermarriage Good for the Jews? (If you want to know how I looked at 24, take a look at my wedding photo – my 7-year old grandson said I looked “young” – and I assure you that the tie I was wearing was very fashionable at the time!) Marilyn Cooper did a great job putting together very diverse views; reading all of them carefully left me feeling, well, that there are very diverse views. I was the only person who actually said there are many strong arguments why intermarriage is good for Jews. Keren McGinity also expressed a positive view:

Provided that intermarried Jews and their families are treated equally as inmarried families, and that Jewish education is accessible and engaging, intermarriage can be an opportunity for Jews and their loved ones to draw closer to Judaism and the Jewish community.

Several contributors, including Bob Davis, A. J. Jacobs and Naomi Schaefer Riley, saw increased tolerance as a positive impact of intermarriage. Rabbis Matalon and Lau-Lavie, who are pushing the Conservative movement’s boundaries on officiation, offer very realistic assessments that I thought were optimistic about engaging interfaith families Jewishly.

But there were several expressions of quite negative views. In upholding the movement’s ban on officiation, I respectfully think Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is wrong to say that officiating at interfaith marriages does not help the Jewish people, and that “Reform rabbis have been doing this for quite a while and, for the most part, they have not succeeded in convincing the intermarried couples to be actively Jewish.” I think that is an untenable position given the research I’ve mentioned many times that shows correlation between officiation and later synagogue membership and raising children as Jews.

Two Orthodox perspectives insisted on opposing intermarriage, one saying “intermarriage is heartbreaking.” Sarina Roffe was most extreme: “Every time someone marries out, a whole generation of Jewish people is gone.” She comes from the Syrian Jewish community, which she says rejects not only those who intermarry, but even those who marry Orthodox converts.

I was puzzled by Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel, who says that if he had intermarried, “experiences that I currently derive tremendous meaning from would be missing.” I say puzzled because there is no reason why the experiences he mentions – saying Kaddish for a parent, preparing a son for his bar mitzvah, and watching a daughter learn Hebrew – have to be missing in intermarried families.

The Forward also published We asked 22 rabbis: Is intermarriage a problem or an opportunity which offered a not dissimilar set of diverse views. Susan Katz Miller had an interesting take on the piece, criticizing the sample for being half Orthodox rabbis (when the Orthodox are 10% of the population) and only two Reform, and the “corrosive” content of many of the responses. She correctly points out that interfaith families reading many of the opinions will not feel welcomed or included.

I was struck, however, by responses from two wonderful Orthodox rabbis, Shmuly Yanklowitz and Avram Mlotek, who did emphasize inclusivity. Rabbi Yanklowitz said, “With the proper inclusive programming and outreach opportunities, there are ways to make interfaith families feel welcome in the community, which will, in turn, spark interest in creating and perpetuating loving Jewish households.” Rabbi Mlotek said, “If our Jewish communities seek to be relevant religious centers for the 70% of American Jews who choose to intermarry, it is incumbent upon us to welcome these families unabashedly and work with them as they strive to build Jewish homes.”

Finally in the continuing discussion about Conservative rabbis and officiation, there is items. Letter Reignites Interfaith Officiation Debate refers to a letter by four Conservative leaders that re-affirms the ban on officiating for interfaith couples, but does talk at length about welcoming them. Conservative Jewish Leaders Are Endangering Their Brand is an opinion by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall who objects to the letter’s statement that the intermarried should be welcomed with “equally open arms.” Kwall wants to retain the Conservative brand’s strong preference for in-marriage — that’s a non-inclusive approach that I believe can only lead to decline.

Meeting People Where They Are

|

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a leading Conservative rabbi whose essay in March explained why he thought Conservative rabbis should continue to not officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, has a new essay arguing that “the Conservative movement should be the movement of conversion.” He wants to “meet people where they are,” and as I understand it make the conversion process easier, in particular not requiring converts to be “fully observant.”

I have always felt that conversion is a wonderful personal choice and I don’t have any issues with making the process easier including for some couples who are getting married. But the idea that making conversion more inviting and “doable” will enable Conservative rabbis to meet young couples who are getting married “where they are” is sorely misguided. Because neither partner is thinking that the partner who is not Jewish needs to make a fundamental change in who he or she is in order to be marriageable.

As David Wilensky and Gabriel Erbs have just written in A Taxonomy of Stupid Shit the Jewish Establishment Says to Millennials:

We really don’t understand how any thinking person believes an intra-communal breeding program will be a convincing appeal to young people. Jewish millennials chafe against this pearl-clutching because we embrace, overwhelmingly, progressive values about gender, sexuality, and marriage. To us, baby-boomer chatter on intermarriage sounds alarmingly like what a lot of “polite society” said at the advent of racial intermarriage….

If Jewish boomers are really anxious about generational continuity (a phrase that verges on eugenics in its subtext), they should stop their hardline rhetoric, which simply pushes millennials out of the communal fold. For interfaith Jewish families who wish to build their family life within the Jewish communal context, this kind of talk constantly reminds them of their second-class status – so they leave.

Shaul Magid writing in The Forward also disagreed with Rabbi Cosgrove, though for different reasons:

I do not think it is fair, or spiritually refined, to ask the non-Jew to become a Jew in order to solve a Jewish problem [intermarriage]. Or to allow us, as rabbis, to sleep at night. To do so is to make conversion into an instrument and the convert into a tool to benefit us.

Rabbi Cosgrove advances other interesting ideas. Since Conservative rabbis do not recognize patrilineal descent, he recommends that all marrying couples go to the mikveh before their weddings, which would “level the playing field of Jewish identity” – and, as I understand it, enable Conservative rabbis to officiate at those weddings. He also recommends that all b’nai mitzvah children go to the mikveh, which would confirm the Jewish identity of patrilineal children.

But these are band-aids that don’t address a much bigger issue. Rabbi Cosgrove has said we must be “passionate in creating a culture of warm embrace for Jew and non-Jew alike.” Not recognizing patrilineal descent, not allowing partners from different faith traditions to participate in Jewish ritual, and not officiating at weddings of interfaith couples – all of these undermine any possible warm embrace.

***

In other news, the Reform Movement’s Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, April Baskin,  has announced the piloting of an Audacious Hospitality Toolkit, a “suite of resources” that will “enable [Reform Jewish leaders] to engage and lead the diverse facets within our community more effectively, as well as enhance all aspects of synagogue life – from programming, worship, governance, staffing, and more – to increasingly reflect that diversity.” It will be interesting to see what the Toolkit says about engaging interfaith families when it is released – the movement’s description of audacious hospitality does not give particular emphasis to that audience:

Jewish populations such as Jews by choice and those exploring Judaism, Jews of color, Jews who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer, Jews who live with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities, multiracial families, millennials, the aging Jewish population, Jews who are unaffiliated and uninspired by Jewish communal offerings, and of course, the evolving needs of interfaith and intermarried couples and families, requires our focused attention.

Where Might Interfaith Families Find Welcoming Jewish Communities?

|

News in the past few weeks highlights the issue of where interfaith families might find genuinely welcoming Jewish communities.

First, I was so pleased to learn that the smiling couple in the photo, Rev. Eleanor Harrison Bregman and Peter Bregman, are being honored by Romemu, a thriving emerging spiritual community in Manhattan where Eleanor, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, works as Director of Multi-Faith Initiatives.

That’s right – an ordained Protestant minister on staff at a Jewish spiritual community, which Eleanor describes as committed to radical hospitality and inclusivity: “At Romemu the diversity of traditions, voices, and practices in our midst is considered a gift that can support us all in living holy lives.” I first met Eleanor when she was a well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in October 2016; she talked about the “Strangers No More” program she created to support interfaith families, couples, and those who are not Jewish at Romemu, and to expand the centrality of deep respect for all faith traditions there.

But there’s more to that story, because I first met Peter Bregman in July 2004, when he was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a seminary where he could be ordained as a rabbi despite being intermarried. What an amazing arc of developments over the thirteen years since then. Now, Peter could be accepted at the trailblazing Reconstructionist Rabbinical College if he were applying at this time, and now, a trailblazing Romemu is demonstrating genuine welcoming of interfaith families by putting a minister on staff.

Second, and about the same time, the JTA ran an important and I think related story by Ben Sales, Outside the Synagogue, Intermarried are Forming Community With Each Other. He writes that interfaith couples are finding Jewish connection through a range of initiatives aimed at intermarried or unaffiliated couples, mentioning Honeymoon Israel and Circles of Welcome at the JCC Manhattan, among others.

A growing number of initiatives are giving intermarried couples a Jewish framework disconnected from synagogue services and outside the walls of legacy Jewish institutions. Instead of drawing them to Judaism with a preconceived goal, these programs allow intermarried couples to form community among themselves and on their own terms.

Julie Wiener just wrote a great short history of the intermarriage debate for MyJewishLearning.com – one of her subtitles is “From Taboo to Commonplace” – that alludes to interfaith families finding community in new and alternative forms of organization when discussing resources for interfaith families.

As quoted by Sales, one participant in a program says “It was nice to go to a group where everyone was in the same sort of boat. There’s a real dialogue rather than someone telling you their opinion of what your situation is.” One program creator says she wanted to enable couples that come from mixed religious backgrounds “to ask questions in a safe space.”

Sales quotes Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, as explaining that interfaith families that want to experience Jewish life have had to use other resources “because of the history of interfaith families not being welcoming and not being accepted.” (He could have added that InterfaithFamily/Your Community rabbis in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC are offering meet-ups, discussion groups and reunions that are attracting hundreds of interfaith couples.)

Sales also quotes Avi Rubel, co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel, as saying that “When it comes to building community and meeting other people, people want to bring their whole selves… in America that means being inclusive of non-Jews and other friends.” I certainly agree with that. (The Pew Research Center coincidentally released a new report today about increased positive feelings Americans have for various religious groups, with Jews scoring the highest; Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, and 61% of Americans now say they know someone Jewish.)

Rubel also says that intermarried couples are “uncomfortable with settings that, by their nature, are not meant for non-Jews….” – and that’s more complicated, and raises a profound question, and brings me back to Romemu.

The profound question is whether Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, “are not meant for non-Jews” or, to eliminate the double negative, are meant for just Jews. Romemu obviously would not say “we are not meant for non-Jews;” Eleanor says the diversity of traditions there is considered a gift that supports all. Romemu equally obviously would not say that is it meant only for Jews.

I believe that there are some synagogues that genuinely welcome interfaith families, and certainly that many more are trying to. But even Steven M. Cohen is quoted by Sales as acknowledging that the people who feel most welcome in synagogues are “the people who fit the demographic of the active group” – referring to inmarried Jews with children. Moreover,

[O]rganizers of the independent initiatives, and intermarried couples themselves, say even a welcoming synagogue can still be an intimidating space. The couples may not know the prayers or rituals, may feel uncomfortable with the expectation of becoming members, or may just feel like they’re in the minority.

It follows from the fact that the new groups of intermarried couples by their nature are not “meant for Jews” that they are welcoming spaces for interfaith couples, who are comfortable with other people like them. I believe that it is important for mainstream Jewish organizations, including synagogues and emerging spiritual communities, to decide that they are not “meant for Jews” but instead are “meant for” Jews and their partners and all people who want to engage in Jewish traditions with other similarly engaged people. They are Jewish organizations not because they are “for Jews” but because Jewish traditions are engaged in there. Starting from that perspective would naturally lead to taking steps to making those who do not come from a Jewish background not feel intimidated or like a minority, and being less dogmatic and open to contributions from different traditions. That must be what is happening at Romemu, and what needs to happen at many more Jewish organizations, and I believe is the kind of thinking behind the Reconstructionists’ decision to ordain intermarried rabbis, too.

There’s an interesting exchange at the end of the JTA story. Rabbi Miriam Farber Wajnberg, who runs the Circles of Welcome program (and was another well-received speaker at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit) says intermarried Jews won’t remain forever separate, and sees her program “as a stepping-stone to a time when the larger community is more open to non-Jewish spouses.” She hopes her program won’t need to exist in the future.

But the couple quoted in the story says they feel a sense of belonging to the intermarried groups that have formed: “these are the people who get us… [t]his is our community.” The challenge for mainstream and emerging Jewish organizations is to make intermarried people feel about them, the way they feel about their intermarried groups. The starting point for that to happen is for organizations to decide they are for all who are interested, and then to demonstrate radical hospitality and inclusion.

Eleanor and Peter will be honored at Romemu’s benefit, “Awaken Your Voice,” on April 6, 2017. I hope the event will be a great success – it deserves to be.