Positive Messaging About Interfaith Families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying Couch, Millennials, the Holocaust, and Intermarriage

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I had a very interesting experience recently when Amy Kurzweil, author of Flying Couch, A Graphic Memoir, spoke at my synagogue, Temple Shalom of Newton, where Amy grew up. The book tells the story of three women: Amy; her mother, a psychologist; and her Bubbe, a Holocaust survivor, who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto at age 13 disguised as a Christian.

Other than reading Maus many years ago, I hadn’t read any graphic novels or memoirs before. Bubbe had been extensively interviewed for a project that aimed to capture the stories of Holocaust survivors, and, as I understand it, Amy was able to base her re-telling in part on that interview. But there is something about the way her character and her story are drawn and spelled out in the book that is gripping and captivating. I don’t know how many people access written and recorded interviews of Holocaust survivors, but speaking to Amy after her presentation, I said that her book had made her grandmother’s story accessible and unforgettable.

Not surprisingly, I particularly noted references to intermarriage in the book. In telling the story of her bat mitzvah, Amy includes a drawing of her dancing with a boy, and her Bubbe’s off-stage voice saying, “is he Jewish?” Later when Amy depicts herself in college, in a phone call Bubbe asks if she still has the Catholic boyfriend.

It’s completely understandable where Bubbe is coming from in asking those questions. The book relates how Bubbe first met Dave, the young man she would eventually marry. She was hiding on a farm and was asked to give a boy some bread. Later when the war ended she ran into the boy, who brought her to a group of people who were celebrating Shabbat, including Dave. She asks him if he is Jewish, and they were together from that point on.

I also asked Amy whether she still had the Catholic boyfriend; she does have a boyfriend, but he is Jewish. She told me she understood the pressures coming from her grandmother to have a Jewish partner, but she hadn’t felt strongly about it herself – or hadn’t thought it swayed her decisions who to date. But now, she said, she is not surprised she’s with a Jewish partner. She said something to the effect that she wanted to have a partner who could understand, or relate to, or share in, or “get,” her family’s story. She doesn’t think that only a Jewish partner would understand her and her “particular cultural inheritances and habits, religious and psychological, but … it seems more likely.”

Remembering the Holocaust is something that continues to be extremely important to Jews; the Pew Report found that 73% of respondents said that remembering the Holocaust was an essential part of what being Jewish means. I don’t know if there is data available as to how many Millennial Jews have grandparents who were Holocaust survivors, or how many of those young adults are inmarried, or intermarried. I’m sure there is a wide range of attitudes and experiences among both the Holocaust survivor grandparents and the young adult Jews who are in those situations. Bubbe and Amy represent one set; just as Bubbe’s “pressures” make sense, Amy’s not being surprised that she’s with a Jewish partner also makes sense.

But Amy herself says that she doesn’t see a moral value in Jews limiting themselves to Jewish partners; and given the high rates of intermarriage, I expect that many Millennial Jews with Holocaust survivor grandparents have partners from different faith traditions.

In one of my favorite personal narratives written for InterfaithFamily, a young Jewish woman tells about introducing her boyfriend who was not Jewish to her Holocaust survivor grandfather. She wants to tell her grandfather that being with her boyfriend has made her more interested in her Judaism and less able to take if for granted. And her grandfather ends his first meeting with the boyfriend by “giving him the same good-bye kiss he usually reserves for his grandchildren.”

I would encourage everyone to read The Flying Couch. The stories of Amy, her mother and her Bubbe are compelling, and the graphic medium tells them in an especially interesting way. Intermarriage is hardly a focus of the book. But the book and my exchange with Amy Kurzweil raise important questions about how the Holocaust will be remembered in a time of widespread intermarriage.

A New Year Begins – with a Very Important Development

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2019 is off to an interesting start. I was pleased to see that the fourth of my friend Seth Cohen’s  “Seven Predictions for the Year Ahead” was “radical inclusivity” – a very nice lead in to my new book, titled Radical Inclusion! I agree with Seth’s assessment (see my bolding below) and hope his prediction turns out to be accurate:

While awareness of engaging the full range of the identity the Jewish community has (importantly) grown this past year, one cannot help but feel we continue to substantially fall short. No doubt there are significant philanthropic resources being contributed to fostering inclusivity, yet it feels like we still haven’t hit the tipping point of an inclusive communal mindset. I predict in 2019 we do hit a tipping point where there is a much greater focus (and funding) on how we embrace individuals with diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds, different gender and physical/ability identities, and multi-faith identities. If nothing else, because failing to do so is one of the greatest risks of 2019.

When I saw the title “Jewish Preschools Should Embrace 100% of Families,” I thought I’d find an inclusive statement that interfaith families are among those groups that Jewish preschools should embrace. But there wasn’t a mention of them – a classic example of a not inclusive communal mindset that is still too common.

In my book I describe three invitations that could be extended to interfaith families to engage in Jewish life, in terms of “what’s in it for them.” Philip Graubart’s very interesting “Jewish Day Schools and the Canary Mission” is consistent with that approach:

[I]f we really want to create a lasting, dynamic Jewish identity for American Jews, we have to show that Judaism is relevant on a day to day, deeply personal level. Most Jews won’t become activists, but everyone will lose someone they love; everyone will struggle with their conscience; everyone will crave community; everyone will celebrate, mourn, eat, drink, work. A Judaism with teachings relevant to these moments will thrive.

The first very important development of the year, though, is a Conservative synagogue board’s decision that if the Rabbinical Assembly would allow Conservative rabbis to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples, they want their rabbi to do so, coupled with that rabbi, Michael Knopf’s, wonderful explanation of his own views in “Renewing Our Vows: A New Approach to Intermarriage.”

Back in 2015, I blogged about Rabbi Knopf’s “novel approach” to offer interfaith couples “compassionate and nonjudgmental support…, drawing from the riches of our tradition,” but I asked what would happen when those couples sought wedding officiation from Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Knopf now explains that he and his congregation “believe that the Conservative movement’s rule prohibiting its rabbis from officiating at intermarriages is rooted in outmoded halakhic reasoning, conclusions not corroborated by the empirical evidence, and failed strategy.”

I completely agree with Rabbi Knopf’s analysis about the importance of what I would call radical inclusion:

The exclusionary posture of the established Jewish community towards interfaith families does not only push away the Jewish partner from his or her tradition. It also prevents the partner from a different background from experiencing the beauty, richness, and joy of Judaism. But when we welcome and include intermarried couples and their families into our communities in every possible way, we substantially increase the likelihood that Judaism will remain a core part of their family’s life.

That fact – that the Jewishness of intermarried couples and their families is directly related to how much we as Jewish leaders reach out to and include them in Jewish life and community – calls upon us to reexamine our stance about the wedding ceremony itself.

What is new to me in Rabbi Knopf’s essay is his analysis of Jewish law. He writes that

The halakhic tradition recognizes that, sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. The Talmud teaches that when maintaining a prohibition would erode the Jewish people’s commitment to the tradition as a whole, even a clear biblical prohibition can be set aside. This principle is known as “hora’at sha’ah,” the demands of the moment.

He concludes that “present circumstances warrant invoking the ‘hora’at sha’ah’ principle with respect to intermarriage, overturning rabbinic precedent” that prohibits it – not under all circumstances, but “when a couple affirms Judaism will be the sole religion practiced in their household and that any children produced by the union will be raised as Jews.”

There is a lot more in Rabbi Knopf’s essay that is worth reading. He says he published it “in the hope that my argument might encourage my colleagues and other Conservative congregations to follow suit.” With more young progressive Conservative rabbis leaving the movement, and the phenomenon of interfaith couples seeking rabbinic officiation continuing to grow, I hope his colleagues do find it persuasive.

Year-end Round-up

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It’s been busy since Thanksgiving — here’s a round-up of intermarriage news at the end of 2018.

What Christmas Means to Interfaith Families

The Forward today published my essay, “Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas.” I’m always happy to appear in the Forward. But writers don’t get to pick titles, and the point of my essay was more a plea for Jews and Jewish leaders to understand what celebrating Christmas means to interfaith families. Instead of extending “happy holiday” wishes to families to whom Christmas is a warm family time without religious significance, too many Jews and Jewish leaders are still worried that “unambiguously Jewish families” won’t result. As I concluded in the essay, “Successfully encouraging interfaith families to engage in Jewish life necessitates that we overcome any lingering discomfort with interfaith families celebrating Christmas. It’s okay to say ‘happy holidays’ to them this week.”

Conservative Movement News

In a potentially very important development, a Richmond, Virginia Conservative synagogue Board has voted to allow its clergy to officiate at weddings of interfaith couples “when the movement formally allows its rabbis to do so.” The Forward’s Ari Feldman calls this “symbolic” but “an unprecedented measure of support for permitting intermarriage within the movement.” Rabbi Michael Knopf explains that his position on interfaith officiation changed. He says the Torah’s prohibition against marrying people from seven specified nations “should be reinterpreted to allow for interfaith officiation when it can ‘be reasonably presumed that the Jewish partner will remain Jewishly committed. Not everyone who marries outside the faith is a flight risk.’” With respect to the argument that intermarriage leads to less Jewish involvement, he says, “if the Jewish community takes a posture of embrace and inclusion towards the people, it becomes even more likely that they’ll deepen their involvement in Jewish life.” Knopf says his synagogue’s decision “was designed to prod the Conservative movement to ease its stance on interfaith weddings. There needs to be grass roots momentum from the rank-and-file if there’s going to be change on this issue.” It will be very interesting to see if other congregations follow suit.

Interfaith Families Increasingly Jewish

There was an important story the day before Thanksgiving, “Interfaith Families Increasingly Jewish,” by Stewart Ain in the New York Jewish Week. It was prompted by a new study of South Palm Beach County by the Cohen Center at Brandeis, which found that 66% of intermarried families were raising their children Jewish (the community is generally older, and the intermarriage rate is only 16%).

  • Paul Golin said he was struck that “more interfaith households are raising their kids with a Jewish identity than are not — which is the exact opposite of what we were told was going to happen with the increasing rate of intermarriage.”
  • Tobin Belzer said that the “focus of the next generation of scholars will be to look qualitatively at what it [being Jewish] means.” Instead of being cut off, she said, “there are more interesting avenues for exploring Jewish identity than ever before, and many of them are more inclusive than in previous generations.”
  • Ted Sasson said “the driver of the change is that millennial children are more likely to receive a Jewish education and other forms of Jewish socialization than other generations … are more likely to attend a Jewish summer camp and Hebrew school and have a bar or bat mitzvah than adults born in the 1960s and 1970s.” But he cautioned against resting on our laurels: “My own view is that the Jewish community invested a lot in outreach and engagement and that it would be wise to double down on that investment.”

Reform Movement Developments

The URJ announced that it will launch a pilot program in 2019 of its Wedding Officiation Network that will “connect couples with Reform rabbis and cantors in their communities to perform wedding ceremonies and lay the foundation for new relationships between young couples and their local congregations or Jewish community.” The URJ is also changing the way it delivers its Introduction to Judaism and A Taste of Judaism courses, away from in-person offerings at local congregations with local URJ staff in a limited number of local communities, to offering centralized support for all of its congregations, with curriculum and marketing resources and online offerings.

Mnookin Book

A new book, The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World, by Robert Mnookin, a Harvard Law School professor, has received a lot of coverage, including an interview by Judy Bolton-Fasman in jewishboston.com, and reviews in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and the San Diego Jewish World. I’ll have more to say about the book later. I liked what Donald H. Harrison, editor of the San Diego paper, had to say:

This is a time when considerably more than 50 percent of American Jews are marrying non-Jewish partners, prompting some to believe that whereas the non-Jewish world never could annihilate us with its hate, its love, on the other hand, may so diminish our numbers that American Judaism may someday vanish.  Mnookin does not subscribe to this point of view, and neither do I. The Jewish people have many values – among them, love of education, belief in doing acts of kindness, adherence to the idea that we can personally better ourselves and our world – that are appealing to people of other faiths.  I know many intermarried couples who, accordingly, are raising their children as Jews.  I believe if the Jewish people consistently welcome intermarriage, our ranks will grow rather than diminish.

Young Adults

People say young people look at potential partners from different traditions as equals, and aren’t concerned with interfaith dating. But in JSwipe, Parental Pressure, and Lapsed Catholic Girlfriends: How Young Jews are Dating Today, Sophie Hurwitz, a Wellesley College sophomore writing for New Voices, says, “For many millennial Jews, parental pressure still looms large over their romantic lives. The fears surrounding interfaith marriage that permeate the Jewish community, alongside an idea that dating Jewish is ‘just easier,’ prompts many parents to urge their children to exclusively date other Jews.” The story is based on a handful of interviews, but it is illuminating about the young adult perspective.

Peter Feld, responding to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announcing that she had Sephardic ancestry, takes a much different view about young adults’ attitudes. He says:

American Jewish life is witnessing a transformation. A new perspective, informed by intersectionality, inclusion and other left values, is replacing the old one marked by matrilineal heritage and religious ritual. On topics ranging from who is a Jew to where to stand on Israel to what policies domestically Jews should support, young American Jews are leading a shift in identity that’s influencing the community as a whole.

The rejection of “concrete identity” in favor of inclusive values and respect for complex origin stories contrasts sharply to the traditional fear of assimilation, which was posed as a constant threat in 20th century Jewish life. Jewish parents and clergy railed against it, organizing youth groups and summer camps to ward it off.

But now, in the relentlessly diverse world of Millennials and Gen Z, this fixation seems hopelessly archaic…. [A] new generation … is [p]rimed to accept how a person sees their own identity instead of acting as gatekeepers.

Responding to Israeli minister Naftali Bennet’s blaming alienation from Israel on assimilation, Feld says,

The likes of Naftali Bennett who wish to connect with American Jews should take note that we respond better to appeals to our core values, and to an inclusive definition of Jewishness, than to fearmongering about assimilation.

More Hanukkah and Christmas

I was surprised to find this wonderful comment in an article by an Israeli about Jewish law surrounding lighting and displaying the menorah:

How many times do we choose to exclude others in our prayer groups, or our Jewish lives because we don’t consider them to be authentically Jewish? There are so many who have joined the Jewish community who are sincere and devoted but who are consistently rejected or viewed with suspicion by some, because we have not yet found a way to see them as valid, as worthy of being “one of us.”

I also loved this comment about the meaning of the word “Hanukkah”:

The essence of the word Hanukkah — a dedication — is the ability of Judaism to continue. And historically, continuity has meant three elements: remembrance, education and resistance. These elements seem especially resonant this year, when history, knowledge, and the ability of the individual and society to stand up are all under attack.

Jordana Horn criticized Ivanka Trump for an Instagram post showing one of her children “looking awed at the magnificent Christmas décor” at the White House, wishing she had posted a picture of her family being Jewish.

In Hanukkah Is Not Christmas. This Year, Let’s Embrace That, another effort to define “Jewish” along traditional lines, Ben Shapiro makes the outlandish claim that “failure to see Hanukkah for what it truly is means that our children will be far more likely to abandon Judaism than to embrace it.” He says what it truly means is “the requirement for a fulsome Jewish lifestyle that infuses our entire being, that motivates us all year, that gives us something to live and die for.” “This authentic view of Hanukkah enables Jews to see Christmas in a different light: not as a competing holiday, but as a ritual complete with aesthetic beauty but lacking any Jewish spiritual relevance.” “If we fail to commit to Judaism more broadly but think that a few presents and some over-oiled hash browns will keep our kids Jewish, we’ve missed the message of Hanukkah entirely.”

The URJ offered a nice article with advice for interfaith couples on talking about and making decisions about celebrating the December holidays (and another about grandparenting interfaith grandchildren).  A secular paper in Arizona had a long article about how interfaith couples celebrate.

Recognition

There’s been a flap in Australia, where an Orthodox day school refused admission to the child of one of its graduates and his wife, who converted to Judaism but not under Orthodox auspices. Nine Orthodox rabbis said, “The Torah is eternal and unchanging. It has an inbuilt system that deals with new situations and modern innovations, but the very definition of Jewish identity is not subject to change.”

Suggested Corrections

In a recent piece expressing concern over declining numbers of liberal Jews, Rabbi John Rosove said we need to “reverse the loss of 75% of the children of intermarriages who do not identify as Jews.” Actually, 59% of young adult children of intermarriages identify as Jews.

In a review of Samira Mehta’s Beyond Chrismukkah, How Christian-Jewish Intermarriage Became Normal, Emily Soloff says “By the 1980s, talk about preventing intermarriage or encouraging conversion of one spouse largely disappeared, including from the agenda of my own agency, the American Jewish Committee.” That’s not accurate – the AJC was active in promoting statements about the Jewish future in 1991 and 1996 that took a very dim view of intermarriage, and active in 2000 in the Jewish Inmarriage Initiative.

Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas

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This essay was originally published in the Forward.

This month, many interfaith families are celebrating Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reprinted with permission from eJewishPhilanthropy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Book and a New Center

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I am very pleased to announce that I have written a book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, that will be published on January 15, 2019 by the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism, a new non-profit I am in the process of launching to promote inclusive attitudes, policies and programs that will engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community.

Part memoir and history of the Jewish community’s debate over intermarriage, part manifesto, the book is for everyone interested in seeing more interfaith families becoming more engaged in Jewish life and community, and particularly for Jewish lay and professional leaders. It describes three invitations that can be extended to interfaith couples to help them live lives of meaning, raise grounded children, and fulfill their needs for spiritual expression and community, and three high-level roadmaps for what Jews, Jewish leaders and Jewish organizations can do to facilitate their Jewish engagement:

  • adopt radically inclusive attitudes towards interfaith couples and partners from different faith traditions, treating them as equal to inmarried couples and Jews;
  • adopt radically inclusive policies that allow full participation by interfaith families; and
  • implement a massive, concerted programmatic response designed to engage interfaith families.

These attitudes and policies are “radical” because they stand on their head traditional tribal and insular Jewish attitudes that privilege Jews and inmarriage and regard partners from different faith traditions and intermarriage as sub-optimal, with resulting policies that restrict full participation in Jewish life and community to Jews only, and lack of support for programmatic efforts designed to engage them.

I got the idea for the Center from Ron Wolfson, who wrote an important book about and actively promotes the concept of Relational Judaism. I saw a flyer that referred to the Center for Relational Judaism, and Ron explained that his Center was a way to establish an organizational platform for his ideas, so that it wasn’t just “Ron Wolfson says,” but rather “the Center for Relational Judaism says,” and also a way to attract “disciples” who would themselves promote those ideas and carry on his work. The idea apparently worked: the second book, The Handbook for Relational Judaism, has two co-authors who are now actively promoting that approach.

The proverbial light-bulb went off – I got the idea to have the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism as an organizational platform, bigger than just me, and a way to attract people who will pick up and carry on with promoting a radically inclusive approach, and take it in directions not yet determined.

The mission of the new Center is to advocate for radically inclusive attitudes and policies, as well as programmatic efforts designed to engage interfaith families. The Center will engage in advocacy writing and speaking, spurred at the outset by publication of the Radical Inclusion book, and build an alliance of Jewish leaders to participate in those efforts. No other organization is engaging in this kind of advocacy, which I think is sorely needed; Jewish leaders are not explicitly addressing the need to engage interfaith families, or how to do so.

The Center’s activities are meant to be complimentary to and not competitive with or duplicative of InterfaithFamily. I’m very pleased that IFF is the Center’s first organizational partner.

The Center’s application for tax-exempt status is pending. A first step in building the alliance will be the creation of an Advisory Board, which will be chaired by Rabbi Mayer Selekman, a pioneer in interfaith family engagement efforts who is one of the Center’s founding Board members.

Please Connect With The Center if you’d like to know more or to be involved in the Center’s work.

New Strategic Plan for InterfaithFamily

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I was pleased to see Jodi Bromberg’s public announcement of InterfaithFamily’s new strategic plan in eJewishPhilanthropy, It’s a New Year, and a New InterfaithFamily. Congratulations to Jodi Bromberg and the Board and staff of IFF on reaching this milestone. I have a unique perspective to offer, as the founder of the organization, now retired from it.

It clearly was the right time to take a hard look at IFF’s activities and to “focus efforts to scale them for maximum effect,” as Jodi writes. I think it makes great sense to focus on new interfaith couples and on interfaith families with young children, because those are the most critical stages at which interfaith couples make decisions about Jewish engagement, and because focus clearly is a good thing.

Providing information on the Internet so it was available 24/7 was the first thing IFF ever did seventeen years ago; we updated the website several times but as things change so fast in that arena, it makes great sense to rebuild the digital strategy now to ensure that interfaith families do get what they are looking for, when they are looking.

The Jewish clergy officiation referral service was certainly one of the most important initiatives IFF ever created. We always thought that having a positive experience with an officiating rabbi was likely to lead to future Jewish engagement, something confirmed much later by the Cohen Center Under the Chuppah study. We thought about trying to strengthen the relationships that couples seeking a  referral developed with the rabbis on our list, but didn’t really implement that effort; I’m glad to see the attention given to that in the strategic plan.

I was very proud to build the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, with a full-time rabbi and support staff at its height in seven cities around the country. Each local operation was expensive, though, and one rabbi can only reach and work with a limited number of couples and families. I hope that the addition of a stipended rabbinic fellowship program will expand the number of trained clergy skilled at connecting with interfaith couples and connecting couples with each other, and look forward to a growing cadre of such active fellows. I do hope that the centers of excellence will continue to be offered.

Finally, I’m glad to have seen our early efforts to provide training for Jewish professionals develop into the Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative, and the focus on expanding IFF’s professional development offerings.

I agree with Jodi that it is exciting to see the new strategy start to be implemented – and I hope that IFF will only go from strength to strength!

More Negative, More Positive

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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

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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.