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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...
There is an interesting case being argued right now in front of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The court is hearing arguments regarding the definition of âJewish,â and whether it has to do with a personâs bloodline or religious practice.
A little background: the Jewish Free School, a government funded religious day school in London, refused entry to a child whose father was born Jewish but whose mother converted in a Conservative ceremony. The parents sued, and eventually a court of appeals decided that the school broke race laws by refusing entry. The court decided this because Jews in England are defined not only as a religious group, but also as an ethnic group under the Race Relations Act. Therefore, the school was guilty of racial discrimination.
The school took the case to the newly founded Supreme Court, and weâll be curious to see what the court finds. How will it define religion? And what effect will the decision have on other religious schools throughout England?
As we wait for the decision, weâve read some interesting articles analyzing the case and the larger question of who is a Jew. Writing for the British magazine the New Statesman, Sholto Byrnes noted that the question isnât who is Jewish, but who is Jewish by Orthodox standards. JFS, and by extension the office of the British chief rabbi, decided that a child wasnât âsufficiently Jewishâ because of the motherâs conversion process. By those standards, Byrnes says, the school would prefer to admit a student âgiven to eating ham sandwiches on Yom Kippurâ but whose mother was born Jewish.
Coincidentally, the JTA reported yesterday that a Jewish day school in Russia âwas cited for excluding students whose mothers are not Jewish.â Upon their warning, the school changed its policy and no longer requires students to prove their Jewish ancestry.
There is a lot at play here in both these cases â who is Jewish, who decides who is Jewish, and should it be up to others to make that decision? We believe one branch of Judaism should not be in a position to answer these questions for everyone else. Actions and deeds should be enough to demonstrate if someone is indeed living a Jewish life. Why should it matter if someone converted in an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform ceremony? And what about children of intermarriage whose mother hasnât converted? If they are being raised in a Jewish home, is it fair to call them ânon-Jewsâ and deny them a place in our community?
We should be encouraging intermarried/interpartnered families, whether or not the non-Jewish spouse has converted, to make more Jewish choices. Creating barriers for these families sends the message that we donât want them, which couldnât be further from the truth.
Itâs been over 25 years since the Reform Movement voted to accept as Jews the children of patrilineal descent. Despite the vehement opposition of both the Orthodox and Conservative denominations at the time, the Jewish community is still standing. And by many counts, itâs much stronger.
Writing in the (New York) Jewish Week, Julie Weiner took a look back to see how the groundbreaking resolution has impacted the Jewish community. She writes:
The decision, along with outreach efforts to make interfaith families feel welcome in its synagogues, is widely credited as being a huge factor in the Reform movement surpassing the Conservative movement to become the largest stream of American Judaism.
This is a far cry from the hysteria that surrounded the resolution when it was first announced in March of 1983. An open letter to the New York Times published just three months later, penned by an Orthodox rabbi, said âevery member of a Reform family will henceforth be subject to scrutiny to determine whether he or she is genuinely Jewish by Biblical definition.â The Conservative movement, during their 1984 Rabbinical Assembly, âoverwhelmingly rejected any changes in the traditional Jewish law,â said an article in the United Press International.
Despite all of this, Julie noticed that the 25th anniversary came and went with âno major pronouncements or reflections from Reform leaders.â Why not? Was the movement âembarrassed or ambivalent about the decision,â she wondered?
Most Reform leaders I talk to insist the opposite is true. They argue that patrilineal descent has been so successful, so accepted, that no one gives it a second thought.
But simply passing a resolution didnât have a magical affect on demographics. It was the first step towards creating a greater sense of inclusion. The resolution let people know that Judaism is more than DNA. Which parent passed the religion along was less important than whether or not the child was being raised as a Jew. Most notably, though, children with a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father now had people publicly standing up for their rights at Jews.
Of course, over 25 years later this is still an issue. Jews of patrilineal descent are still viewed by many as illegitimate. Julie talked to JOIâs associate executive director Paul Golin, who believes the Reform movement needs to do more to âeducate peopleâ and make sure patrilineal Jews are âarmed with a response and donât suddenly feel blindsided when they meet Jews who say âOh, youâre not really Jewish because your mother isnât Jewish.ââ
There will likely never be a consensus across denominations regarding patrilineal descent, but the lack of pageantry regarding the anniversary, as Julie points out, is telling. Not just from the Reform side, but nothing from the Orthodox or Conservative movements either. Perhaps itâs because intermarriage is more common today than it was 25 years ago, and each stream of Judaism recognizes that focusing on who is or isnât legitimately Jewish is less important than focusing on getting people â regardless of their background â to make Jewish choices.
What motivates the work of JOI? What are the moral imperatives that drive us day after day to reach out and welcome in?
JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky answered those questions during our recent conference in Philadelphia. But we wanted to bring his words to an audience outside of the conference, so we have posted Kerryâs speech to YouTube (available in two parts).
Our hope is that people who see the video will not only gain a deeper understanding of why we do what we do, but also discover why outreach is so important to the future of the North American Jewish community. âThe facts of history are clear,â Kerry said during his speech. âThe ethic of welcoming the stranger is a touchstone of ethical Jewish behavior.â
We can look to all the examples throughout Jewish texts to find examples of welcoming the stranger. Kerry, though, points to one passage from Psalms that succinctly captures the essence of our work: âThe stone the builders rejected has become our cornerstone.â
We believe this to mean that by welcoming in and engaging all those who find themselves on the periphery of the community â including intermarried/interpartnered families, LGBT Jews, and children of intermarriage â we will guarantee the strength of our Jewish future.
The Jewish Exponent, the weekly Jewish newspaper of Philadelphia, recently announced an inclusive new policy change. The Jewish Publishing Group, which oversees the Jewish Exponent, âhas voted unanimously to include notices of gay and lesbian unions in the publicationâs life-cycles section.â
Lisa Hostein, the editor-in-chief, explained that the paper already includes birth, adoption and death notices for LGBT couples, so itâs only natural for the paper to include their unions as well. The policy change, along with the Exponentâs âextensive coverageâ of LBGT Jewish communal issues this past year, is also a reflection upon evolving attitudes of society as a whole. The leadership at the Exponent is simply trying to be âas inclusive as possibleâ towards everyone they serve in the Jewish community.
At JOI, we mostly speak of physical spaces â synagogues or Jewish community centers for example â when talking about opening our doors. But the Exponent reminds us that the pages of a Jewish newspaper are just as important as points of entry. The paper, which also prints interfaith union announcements, has reaffirmed its âcommitment to be a venue where all Jews â regardless of political, religious, or sexual orientation â fell welcome.â Just like our Big Tent Judaism Coalition, the Jewish Exponent believes all four sides of our communal tent, whether in person or on paper, should be open for all who approach.
Our big tent just keeps getting bigger.
Beâchol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization devoted to promoting inclusion for racially and ethnically diverse members of the Jewish community, held its first summer camp in June (which grew out of years of annual retreats). At the same time, said Sue Fishkoff in the JTA, founders of the Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN), with goals are similar to Beâchol Lashon, âpassed leadership on to the next generation and is now run by and for Jews of color.â
The rapid expansion and changes in leadership of these organizations shows us that more opportunities are needed for these folks to come together and explore their Jewish identity. âThis is a population that is growing, that deserves our sensitivity, and is not getting it,â said JOIâs Paul Golin in the article. He spoke not only as a representative of JOI, but as someone with a Japanese wife who âexpects their future children to face the same questionsâ that his wife experienced in Jewish settings.
Creating these opportunities is not about segregation, said many parents who attended Beâchol Lashonâs recent fall retreat. Itâs about empowerment. âThey look at the Beâchol Lashon activities as supplementary, giving them space to explore connections to Judaism without having to explain who they are,â wrote the JTA.
One of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition is to celebrate the diversity of todayâs Jewish individuals and households and leave behind assumptions about what Jews âlook likeâ or how families are configured. We applaud both Beâchol Lashon and the JMN for advancing these notions and bringing much needed attention to this population and the challenges they face.
At the end of the article, one participant said that in California, they are lucky to already be tolerant. âBut tolerance is just the first step to acceptance, and thatâs what we need more of in the Jewish community.â We agree, and believe his insight should be applied to not just those of mixed heritage, but intermarried/interpartnered families, children of intermarriage, and all those who feel they are on the periphery of the Jewish community.
The voice of the Conservative movement is really beginning to solidify in terms of its approach to intermarried families. Just a few days ago we blogged about a Rosh Hashanah sermon from Rabbi Gil Steinlauf in which he advocated for doing more to include and welcome intermarried families. Now, we have an op-ed from Rabbi David Lerner in the (New York) Jewish Week explaining how his congregation â Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass â is working with interfaith families to find ways âwithin Jewish law to embrace those families who wish to journey with us.â He writes:
Over time, I have come to appreciate more and more the devotion of the dozens of intermarried couples among our 535 families. Those couples with children often work hard to provide their children with a strong Jewish identity and education. Giving of their time, resources and energy, they donate to the community on many levels â serving on committees and making the choice to raise their children as Jews. My experience with these families has convinced me to reconsider my own approach to intermarriage.
Why should we push away those who want to be a part of a Conservative synagogue? Rather, given the shrinking numbers of American Jews in general and Conservative Jews in particular, should we not find ways to accommodate those who want to share in our vibrant Jewish communities?
Rabbi Lerner said his congregation has found ways to include the spouse of another religious background in life cycle events like baby-naming and bânai mitzvah celebrations while remaining faithful to halacha (Jewish law). He even wonders if there is a way to âcreate a ceremony to recognize intermarried couples who commit to raising their children as Jews.â
As part of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, Rabbi Lerner and his congregation exemplify what we are trying to achieve with BTJ, which is to engage, support and advocate for all those seeking a welcoming Jewish community. Our shared goal of encouraging intermarried/interpartnered families and unaffiliated Jews to make Jewish family choices wonât happen, though, if we donât provide the opportunity for these folks to discover the value and meaning of Judaism.
âIf Conservative Judaism is to remain a relevant and dynamic mainstream movement, it must confront these issues more openly and forthrightlyâ he writes. Itâs for this reason that JOIâs Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has been, for the first time, invited to speak at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial convention in December. This shows that the Conservative movement understands its outreach strategies have to change if the movement wants to continue to serve the growing diversity of todayâs Jewish community.