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The Big Tent Judaism Blogcontaining up-to-the-minute news about the efforts of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition and other programs and events within the Jewish community that open our tent...
In our ongoing debate over the challenges and opportunities found in interfaith relationships, one of the arguments we often hear is that when someone marries outside of the faith, the chances of Jewish continuity drop significantly. The theory is that with a non-Jewish spouse, the children won‚Äôt have a proper Jewish education, and they will grow up without a clear indication of their religion. Therefore their children will have an even lesser understanding of their Jewish roots. We tend to blame interfaith families for not engaging with the Jewish community or providing their children with a Jewish education, but at the same time we refuse to let them do so in our institutions.
We know that‚Äôs a nihilistic view that needs to change. And so does Shari Rabin.
Shari is a junior at Boston University, majoring in religion with a focus on religion in America. She writes a blog called the Chutzpah Chronicles for the website On Faith, in which she records ‚Äúher observations and intellectual meanderings.‚ÄĚ
In her most recent blog post, she writes about meeting the seven other participants in her summer internship in Jewish studies (she doesn‚Äôt say for what organization). As everyone starts to introduce themselves, one thing becomes strikingly clear ‚Äď she was the only person in the room who was ‚Äú100 percent‚ÄĚ Jewish, that is, with two Jewish parents. In a room full of people preparing to spend the summer in a Jewish internship, two were not Jewish, and four were the children of interfaith marriage. The realization that interfaith families are increasingly the norm challenged one of her most basic assumptions about Jewish life. Shari wrote:
My family‚Äôs strong opposition to intermarriage has also ingrained in me a certain internal narrative in which intermarriage leads to confusion leads to disaffection leads to abandonment of Judaism. But the fact that 4 out of the 5 Jewish interns spending the summer doing intensive Jewish studies research come from such backgrounds has shown me that this is not always the case.
It‚Äôs often been remarked upon that converts are the most dedicated Jews. And I think that for my fellow interns and other dedicated Jews from interfaith families, there is a similar reason ‚Äď Judaism for them is something exciting and chosen that they don‚Äôt take for granted. I am still convinced that marrying another Jew is the best thing for Jewish people, but I have learned to be a little less pessimistic about interfaith families.
It‚Äôs a good day when someone can look at the world around them and see opportunities instead of barriers; when they can put aside assumptions and approach things with an open mind. Shari grew up thinking interfaith marriage was an end to Judaism, a nail in the coffin. But during those introductions, she saw people excited and dedicated to learning about and preserving the Jewish faith. That optimism is what drives JOI, and in the end, we think that‚Äôs what will help grow our Big Tent and strengthen the North American Jewish community.
The Central Conference of American Rabbi‚Äôs recently concluded their 119th annual convention, and they have come up with a new approach towards addressing the opportunities and challenges of interfaith marriage. In their recent newsletter, it is explained that the CCAR is going to initiate ‚Äúprograms to guide and support its members in the critical work of welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community through the work of a specially appointed Task Force.‚ÄĚ
Reform Judaism has always been on the forefront of creating an open Jewish community, and this announcement serves as further validation of the work we do here every day. JOI long ago moved beyond the debate over intermarriage, instead focusing on what we can do to engage interfaith families and create Jewish continuity. Though they have been accepting of interfaith families for years, the CCAR has is now going to also work more on engagement. Rabbis at the convention shared their personal experiences of working with interfaith families in order to learn how their colleagues approached the subject. Peter Knobel, CCAR president, explains:
‚ÄúWe no longer want to make positions or pass resolutions which may divide us, but rather to work together to make the next generation of Jews,‚ÄĚ Knobel said. ‚ÄúThe goal is to provide Reform Rabbis with information, strategies, tools and guidelines that will enable them to lead more effectively as they face the myriad of issues arising out of intermarriage.‚ÄĚ
The debate over intermarriage will likely never end. There will always be those who feel it erodes the Jewish community, and there will be those who feel it provides an opportunity to bring more people in. We, of course, believe the latter, and we have developed programs like The Mothers Circle and The Grandparents Circle which are designed to help engage families and strengthen the Jewish community. We‚Äôre positive that by ‚Äúcreating dialogue instead of debate over intermarriage issues,‚ÄĚ the CCAR will help our big tent grow even bigger.
This preposterous comedy starring Adam Sandler and Emmanuelle Chriqui is much what has come to be expected of most of Sandler‚Äôs early summer release comedies. Although it is silly and slapstick, it does capture quite hilariously so many Israeli personality nuances. And the ubiquitous food staple‚ÄĒhummus‚ÄĒhas a place in almost every scene.
But, this Romeo and Juliet-esque film does have an important message woven throughout: America presents the possibility for disparate groups to get along even when they may not be able to do so in their home environs. This is particularly true of the romantic relationship between the two lead actors (Sandler, who plays an Israeli macho commando turned New York hairdresser and Chriqui, who plays a Palestinian hairdresser who takes a risk on Sandler/Zohan, despite the fact that her brother is a terrorist and Zohan‚Äôs arch-enemy). While the film didn‚Äôt dwell much on religious differences, it was clearly a statement on the challenge of the political issues that keep Jews and Palestinians apart. The film tells us something that we at JOI already know: While intermarriage is rare in Israel between Jews and Arabs (be they Palestinian or of other political origin), it is increasing‚ÄĒand it certainly is increasing in the American Jewish community.
Zohan may be a comedy and it is filled with laughs. But it teaches us a serious lesson about the Big Tent which we call Judaism.
Last month, the California Supreme Court overturned the state‚Äôs ban on gay marriage. One of the original plaintiffs in the case was Robin Tyler. As the day grew near for her marriage to her partner, she was contacted by a reporter from a mainstream Jewish newspaper. Robin thought the conversation would be about gay marriage, but, as she recalled in an article on the blog The Huffington Post, the reporter threw her for a loop.
She had e-mailed me: “What do you think of intermarriage?” I replied: “If women want to marry men, it’s perfectly okay with me!” But when the reporter phoned to interview me, she said she meant “interfaith marriage.”
Stupid, I’m not. Immediately, I knew this was about my partner, Diane Olson, not being Jewish.
It‚Äôs interesting that the reporter wanted to bypass what is one of the most newsworthy moments of the year and focus instead on interfaith marriage. Usually the issues of the GLBT community eclipse those of interfaith couples, but not in this case. The reporter‚Äôs question, and Tyler‚Äôs initial confusion, highlights how the challenges that face the GLBT and interfaith communities are actually quite similar - both are about achieving equality and respect in the communities in which they reside. And both are communities that JOI is working with to help make that goal a reality.
Tyler‚Äôs story also points to another interesting fact ‚Äď there is a higher rate of interfaith marriage in the GLBT community than in the heterosexual community. This makes the work we are doing with the community all the more important. Since many have already faced rejection and prejudice for their personal life, we want to work with these folks to identify the additional challenges that arise in an interfaith relationship. In marriage, they need not face another level of discrimination.
Robin and her partner Diane regularly attend synagogue services and they are going to be married by a rabbi. We wish them all the happiness that a lifetime of marriage can bring and we look forward to working with couples like Robin and Diane, no matter what their background, in helping to open our big tent and welcome all who approach.
For many people, summer means great weather and a tendency to spend as much time as possible outdoors. That‚Äôs good for us because outdoor activities provide amazing opportunities for engaging Jews on the periphery. One of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition members, Hazon (Vision), is taking full advantage of the summer weather by providing low barrier outdoor activities that engage, educate and empower the Jewish community. Hazon‚Äôs activities include bike rides and hikes in the U.S. and Israel, and encouragement of Jewish environmentalism and sustainable living everywhere.
As a part of their ‘vision’, all Hazon events foster a ‚Äúradically inclusive,‚ÄĚ accessible community that emphasize ‚Äútolerance, respect, and diversity.‚ÄĚ Hazon has outlined the crucial facets of their programs that help them reach this goal. This outline can be used by anyone looking to embody the principles of Big Tent Judaism and engage Jews on the periphery‚ÄĒoutside or inside:
All of our programs have these characteristics in common:
- A deep commitment to inclusive community
- A determination to reach people where they are, not where we might like them to be
- Putting significant resources into participant empowerment and leadership development
- Enabling people to integrate learning and action
To kick off a summer of inclusive activities, Hazon is hosting their annual “Bike to the Beach” event on June 29th. Free to the public, riders leave from 8 locations throughout New York City and ride to Coney Island. All are welcome to meet for lunch at the Shorefront Y, including people–like myself–who don‚Äôt even own a bike. Look for me there!
Moving to New York just prior to Shavuot, I was excited to enter my new Jewish community in tandem with a favorite Jewish holiday. After perusing local community calendars, I decided that the all night JCC in Manhattan Tikkun Leil Shavuot would provide eclectic programming in a non-denominational environment. From Torah Study to Trance-dance and Yoga, I hoped to celebrate the initial receipt of the Torah at Sinai as I oriented myself to my new Jewish neighbors and community.
I walked into the JCC in Manhattan, went through some metal detectors, and continued past security personnel in suits who waved participants into the lobby, shoving program guides into everyone‚Äôs hand. Surrounded by unfamiliar faces, I attended a few sessions and, quickly enough, found myself at the end of a mile long line for cheesecake
But amidst all these people and activities, I still hadn’t been welcomed on an individual level. That soon changed while I was waiting in line, where I was approached by a stranger dressed in a full body owl costume. She sidled up next to me and pushed a piece of paper into my hands. At first glance it looked like a printed out personal ad from J-Date, the Jewish singles website. I figured out quickly that the ad was a humorous parody on the ways in which Jewish women–approaching a certain age–feel the need to market themselves to Jewish men for the sake of reproduction. Or excuse me, ‚Äėcontinuity.‚Äô This owl was an anonymous advocate from the group Jewish Women Watching, a group devoted to highlighting what they see as “discriminatory practices in the American Jewish community.” The group implements awareness campaigns such as this one to coincide with holidays. At the end of the ad the group made their point:
The Jewish community‚Äôs priorities of marriage and parenthood aren‚Äôt a match for everyone. This Shavuot, as we celebrate the deliverance of Jewish law, deliver a message that isn‚Äôt about delivering Jewish babies.
Broaden the standards that are used to evaluate a Jewish life.
Recognize Jewish women as powerful beyond their reproductive abilities.
Celebrate the many types of families in the Jewish community…
…These are the keys to Jewish continuity.
This message resonated with me on the eve of joining JOI as its newest Program Officer. Jewish Women Watching hopes that the Jewish community is inclusive of all those cultivating Jewish life and a Jewish future. For some this means falling in love and raising Jewish children. For others, this means creating a Jewish home and life as an individual. Just like one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism initiative, JWW celebrates the diversity of today’s Jewish individuals and households, leaving behind assumptions of what Jews “look like” or how families are configured. That all are embraced and welcomed into a broader Jewish ‚Äėfamily‚Äô is an ideal that JOI and JWW have in common, and one that I am excited to work towards.
So while this interaction with the owl left me inspired, I still left my first event as a member of the Manhattan Jewish community feeling like an outsider. As I join JOI, I look forward to ensuring that such events in the Jewish community include designated greeters to welcome all participants, especially newcomers like me.