Entries for Category: Intermarriage
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My non-Jewish roommates were confused by the idea that I would “convert” to Judaism. “From what?” Brent asked. It was a fair question. Jon seconded: “Yeah, if you’re not Jewish now, what are you?” There was no easy answer. My first attempt at answering them – I launched into a preamble about my half-baked idea of drawing a distinction between “converting” and “undergoing a conversion” – didn’t help much.
We met during college orientation, so the three of us had known each other for almost five years by the time I decided to undergo a conversion. A regular at Saturday morning services in college, they knew me as the rare college student who rose before noon on Saturday. My extensive collection of what Brent called “esoteric Hebrew t-shirts” (the result of spending high school in a never-ending series of positive Jewish youth events) had long been the butt of good-natured jokes in our circle of friends. In the time they’d known me, I had rarely shut up about Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness.
Without realizing the irony of it, Brent, Jon, and everyone else I knew in college would have placed me squarely in the “very Jewish” column. Yet, I am a patrilineal Jew, meaning my Jewish pedigree comes only from my father’s side. In the Orthodox understanding of Jewish legal tradition, only Jews-by-choice and the offspring of Jewish mothers are considered Jews. But there’s another detail complicating the issue: To be a Jew by birth, your mother must have already been a Jew herself at the time of your birth – and that’s where I ran into trouble: I was a little kid when my mother converted.
Already a regular at services and Sunday school, I remember beaming with pride when she came to the front of our congregation one Friday night for the public portion of her conversion, in which the convert is asked to quote the titular character of the biblical Book of Ruth: “Your people will become my people, and your God will become my God.”
I have learned and relearned many things while I spent the month of June teaching at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin. I had never been to Germany before, but I wanted to make sure that I didn’t come as a tourist. So I accepted the invitation as a visiting professor so that I could explore Germany’s Jewish past and present—and help the community and its rabbinical students to shape a bright future.
One of the stories that was driven home for me once again was the story of the demonstration against the Nazis (the so-called Rosenstrasse protest) by spouses of other religious backgrounds of Jewish men who were imprisoned during the Fabrikaktion (Factory Action). It was the last round-up of men working in factories in February 1943. The action of these spouses led to the release of these men, almost all of whom survived the war and became the seeds of the Berlin Jewish community.
While I don’t like to mix the issues of Holocaust and intermarriage, for obvious reasons, in this case, it is necessary to do so. This is another example in which spouses of other religious backgrounds secured the future of the Jewish community—much in the same way as do the mothers in JOI’s own Mothers Circle program. Moreover, when these women of the Rosenstrasse protest died, there was a section reserved for them and for their spouses in the Berlin Jewish Community’s Weissensee Cemetery. No questions asked. No debate needed.
There are many lessons from history yet for us to learn.
Lest we think that only heterosexual couples have to work out issues around intermarriage, here is a Wedding Announcement from The New York Times of a gay couple with two adopted girls being raised as Jews by a stay-at-home Catholic dad.
They talked, exchanged numbers and went on their first date three weeks later. They went out four more times that week, the last of which to watch the Gay Pride parade. When a family with children walked by, Mr. Mulvaney, who was raised Roman Catholic and is one of 13 children, mentioned that he might like to have a family someday.
“As long as we raise them Jewish,” they both recall Mr. Kozuch replying with a smidgen of humor.
Intermarriage is not only prevalent in the homosexual community, it is almost a necessity. It’s hard enough to find someone compatible who is Jewish when you are straight, but being gay shrinks the marriage pool that much more. Of course if you live in New York City, the odds of meeting a nice Jewish gay boy or girl are greater, but when over half of all marriages in North America are intermarriages, it stands to reason that a good portion of gay marriages will be as well.
As someone who not only works with intermarried, but is also immersed in the Brooklyn Jewish community, I was extremely moved by the recent open letter to Hebrew Union College from Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu of Brooklyn, NY. Published in the Jewish Daily Forward, Rabbi Lippmann urges the seminary, of which she counts herself an alumna, to reconsider their policy of prohibiting admission to rabbinical school candidates in interfaith relationships. Lippmann has been in an interfaith, same-sex relationship for nearly thirty years, during which time she and her partner have raised a daughter in a Jewish home. While Lippmann’s partner feels that conversion is not the right choice for her, she still embraces Jewish traditions, including Shabbat and the counting of the Omer (ritual countdown of the days from Passover to Shavuot).
“We are like the thousands of Jews across America who commit to strongly Jewish lives with their non-Jewish spouses. Interfaith families tell me that having a rabbi who mirrors their relationships makes an enormous difference to being able to commit to Jewish life.”
As inspiring as it was to read such an eloquent and heartfelt expression of inclusion as a core Jewish value, I was extremely disheartened upon scrolling to the bottom of the page, where Rabbi Lippmann’s words were met with a litany of hateful responses. Most of the comments decry intermarriage as sacrilegious, and some even go so far as to denounce the Reform movement altogether as “not Jewish anyway.” What really got to me, though, was seeing the golden calf and even Hitler invoked with careless ignorance. All I kept thinking was, “this is not Jewish.”
We here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) believe in unequivocally welcoming all Jews and their loved ones into the Jewish community. We know how difficult it can be for some couples to reconcile their different religious backgrounds with their love for each other. JOI has programs like The Mothers Circle, which is designed to support women of other backgrounds raise Jewish children, as well as others that help newcomers navigate the at-times murky waters of the Jewish community. But we shouldn’t make the assumption that every “interfaith” couple is going to have religious issues. Religion is an important question to discuss if it’s important to you, but we as a Jewish community have to recognize that it may simply not be that important to everyone.
I recently came across an op-ed entitled “Interfaith Marriage: A Mixed Blessing” by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley. Schaefer Riley, who identifies as “a conservative Jew married to a former Jehovah’s Witness,” paints a decidedly tepid portrait of intermarriage, which she expands upon in an upcoming book. After describing the unintended consequences of interfaith marriage for both society and the individual, she writes that “remarkably, less than half of the interfaith couples in my survey said they’d discussed, before marrying, what faith they planned to raise their kids in.”
Alyssa Latala is JOI’s new Big Tent Judaism Coordinator in Chicago. She partners with the Chicago Jewish community to create and implement low barrier, welcoming programs that serve all those who might find interest and meaning in Jewish life regardless of affiliation or family structure. We are excited to add her voice to the JOI.org blog. Meet Alyssa here.
As is the case whenever one gets a new job, it’s exciting to share the new role with friends and family. In my case, as the newest Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) staff member, it has been an eye-opening experience that has inspired me further to do the work that we do.
The conversation that hit home for me the most took place with a friend who was unfamiliar with JOI. Upon learning about the mission and goals of the organization, she shared a story about a close friend who came to her for guidance after being rejected by a potential employer. The employer, a Jewish organization she had been connected to since childhood, told her she was unfit for the position because of her non-Jewish husband.
The largest challenge I face as a Jew dating someone of another religious background is navigating the relationship between my girlfriend and my family. Having her meet my parents and gain their approval seems like the main obstacle; however, it is only the first step in a long process. As an immigrant who was raised in an area with a large Russian-Jewish presence, when I refer to my family, I’m not just talking about my mom and dad. What I’m really talking about is the large community of people around me, which includes aunts; uncles; cousins; distant relatives which I call my aunts, uncles, and cousins; close friends of the family; their distant relatives, in-laws, and their distant relatives; and so on. If you have a big “family,” this can sometimes include up to a third of your local Russian-Jewish community.
Having gained the approval of my parents some time ago, my girlfriend, Camilla, was now ready to meet other members of my “family.” This can be rather intimidating under any circumstance, but coming into a community that can be very closed off to outsiders can make the task even more difficult. Not only would she have to impress them as a person, she would have to overcome possible prejudices, not being a Russian or a Jew.
Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to providing education and support to those on the periphery of Jewish life through a wide array of programming, including The Mothers Circle and The Grandparents Circle. As part of that commitment, we have collaborated with our friends at Shalom Sesame to introduce you to free educational resources at ShalomSesame.org. From the creators of Sesame Street, Shalom Sesame is a cross-platform media initiative developed to introduce American children to Jewish culture, Hebrew language, and the diversity of Israel.
The Shalom Sesame site is easy to use, focusing on timely themed units. Each unit includes videos, worksheets, games and a series of parent articles. We are excited to share our new holiday-themed Shalom Sesame resource guides, which help you navigate the resources, with an eye toward the diversity that characterizes the Jewish community of today. As you bring Jewish tradition into your households, Shalom Sesame is a wonderful way for you and your children to learn together.
I am not a fan of Lifetime movies. While there’s always a time for an incredibly predictable love story, the idea of watching what is basically the same plot with different characters over and over again doesn’t appeal to me. The “heartstrings” channel’s latest variation on a theme is Twist of Faith, starring Toni Braxton as a gospel singer and David Julian Hirsch as an Orthodox Jewish cantor. The Forward’s Eitan Kensky’s broke down the plot of the movie, as well as analyzed it being advertised as an “interfaith love story,” in a recent article.
The first interesting point Kensky brings up is one I think about a lot: sure, intermarriages and inter-dating are becoming more common on TV and in movies, but usually at least one, if not both, of the people involved is not particularly religious—it’s the parents or grandparents stressing religion and culture, or family history. We see this in real life as well, as, understandably, having one “strong” faith is easier than two, and can make combining traditions a bit easier. So where, then, is Lifetime going with two main characters who each have such strong yet different religious backgrounds? According to blogger on NewsObserver.com, absolutely nowhere.
Every so often, the subject of my denomination comes up in conversation. That is to say, I am asked if I am Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, etc. I spent most of my life being so sure of the answer, but recently I find that the question just makes me uncomfortable.
I grew up in the Conservative movement, went to a Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School, lived in a kosher home– the whole shebang. But did I pray three times a day? No. Did I work on Shabbat? Once I turned 16, you could find me scanning groceries at the local Publix on most Saturdays. Do I eat cheeseburgers? Yes, but never in my parents’ house. All this is to say that I adapted my Conservative upbringing to accommodate a more modern lifestyle, which is essentially a Reform Jewish perspective. Yet, attending a Reform service has always felt uncomfortable to me. Why? Because it’s just not what I do. While many of my values align with the Reform movement, the religious setting feels unnatural to me because the melodies are different, there is more English, and there are often instruments. What appeals to me about Judaism in general IS the tradition, the memories I attach to it, and the sense of efficacy I feel when I am engaged in it. I prefer a Conservative service because I like that I know what to expect; it reminds me of my upbringing and makes me feel closer to my Jewish self. But I by no means adhere to Jewish law in the way that the Conservative movement propounds. I’m not prepared to give up my cheeseburgers.
I wrestle with my own hypocrisy a lot on this one. My views tend toward Reform, but my synagogue practices lean toward Conservative. It is largely because of this that, a recent Op-Ed from The Times of Israel really spoke to me.
Are you a Jewish grandparent whose adult children are intermarried, and you want to be able to share the holiday of Passover with your interfaith grandchildren? Then we invite you to join us for a free online discussion to help navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of sharing your traditions with your grandchildren being raised in the context of intermarriage.
With Passover right around the corner, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute will be holding an online discussion for grandparent with interfaith grandchildren.
WHO: Jewish grandparents whose adult children have intermarried.
WHAT: The Grandparents Circle: Seder with the Whole Family Online Discussion
WHEN: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 at 1:00 PM EST
WHERE: Online! All you need is a computer and a phone.
HOW: Register for this free class by clicking here.
During the session, grandparents will have the opportunity to share their concerns and approaches to instilling Judaism in their grandchildren, particularly in the context of the holiday of Passover. Co-led by Rabbi Joyce Siegel, a Grandparents Circle facilitator based in central Massachusetts, and myself, grandparents will also have a chance to discuss strategies on sharing the holiday with children and activities to introduce Passover to their grandchildren. Another topic will be how to share the holidays with grandchildren who may not live close by.
JOI wants to help make Passover an enjoyable holiday for everyone. As always, anyone can register for a Grandparents Circle online session, and JOI welcomes participants to do so by clicking the link above. For questions about either session, how to participate, or how to get a question about Passover answered, I invite you to be in touch with me at HMorris@JOI.org or 212-760-1440.
Hurry up! It’s almost time to get your matzah!
Are you a mom looking for guidance on sharing Passover with your children? If you are, or know someone who is, we are here to help!
With Passover just around the corner, beginning on March 25th, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute is excited to offer a free online discussion about celebrating the holiday of Passover, during which we will talk about the details of the seder (ritual meal), what to eat/not to eat, how to involve your children, and more!
WHO: Mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, and anyone else interested.
WHAT: The Mothers Circle: Seder Survival Guide Online Discussion
WHEN: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 1:00 PM EST
WHERE: Online! All you need is a computer and a phone.
HOW: Register for this free class by clicking here.
We at JOI consider mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children to be the unsung heroes of the Jewish community. Therefore, we want to make sure they have the resources necessary to create a Jewish home. By offering this class in an online discussion format, moms from across North America who may not have a local Mothers Circle will be able to get their questions answered while virtually surrounded by moms just like them.
The online discussion will be co-led by Laura Kinyon, a long-time Mothers Circle facilitator based in Hartford, CT, and myself, and participants will be able to submit questions in advance to ensure they are answered during the session (submitted during registration).
We hope you will join us, and will pass this information on to anyone who you think might be interested!
JOI wants to help make Passover an enjoyable holiday for everyone. As always, anyone can register for a Mothers Circle online session, and JOI welcomes participants to do so by clicking the link above. For questions about either session, how to participate, or how to get a question about Passover answered, I invite you to be in touch with me at HMorris@JOI.org or 212-760-1440.
I’ve written before about Jewish celebrities, and how they inherently invoke a sense of pride simply through association. Adam Sandler touched upon that pride in a big way through his Hanukkah songs, in which he goes through long lists of celebrities who are in any way Jewish. As he sings, “Harrison Ford’s a quarter Jewish: not too shabby!” (Note: as it turns out, Ford’s mother is Jewish on both sides; Sandler should probably fix his math on that one!)
But there’s a new category of celebrity Jewish pride that Sandler has yet to address, and that category includes stars like Drew Barrymore. Drew recently spoke to the ladies of The View about her decision to raise her new baby girl, Olive, as “traditionally Jewish.” Barrymore married her husband, art dealer Will Koppelman, about seven months ago in a Jewish ceremony performed by a rabbi, complete with a ketubah (Jewish marital contract), yarmulkes (Jewish head coverings, also called kippahs), and a chuppah (canopy under which a Jewish couple stands during the ceremony).
While Barrymore has not converted and has not intimated that she will choose to, she has embraced Judaism into her life, calling it “a beautiful faith” that she is “so honored” to be around.
“It’s so family-oriented,” she said. “The stories are so beautiful and it’s incredibly enlightening. I’m really happy.”
I would have been excited by Drew’s Jewish connection regardless. But now that I am working with moms just like Drew, who are raising Jewish children without being brought up Jewish themselves, I connected to her words on a new level. I am constantly inspired by the commitment of our Mothers Circle moms to take on such a huge and potentially daunting task, and am so privileged to be part of a team that supports them in their journeys. I hope that Drew’s story gives our moms the same pride and connection I feel when I hear about a Jewish celebrity. Beyond that, I hope it gives Jews everywhere a sense of pride that there are so many who wish to cast their lot with the Jewish people.
Perhaps it’s time for Adam Sandler to start writing The Hanukkah Song Part 4: The Celebrity Mothers Circle!
This past weekend, I finally watched Pitch Perfect, a hilarious take on the world of college a cappella. In addition to bringing back a ton of memories from my days in the Golden Blues at the University of Delaware (Go Blue Hens!), it also reminded me how much I enjoy Elizabeth Banks, who is also one of the movie’s producers.
As luck would have it, the Hunger Games actress and UPenn grad was recently interviewed by Marc Maron for his WTF Podcast, which I learned about thanks to an article by Jewcy.com writer Stephanie Butnick which highlights the fact that Banks is a Jew-by-choice. Banks, raised a Catholic in Massachusetts, married a Jewish man, and eventually converted. But, Maron asks, “are you, like, officially a Jew?” Banks replies, “I’m not officially stamped, but by all accounts yes…My kids go to Jewish pre-school, we only celebrate Jewish holidays, I love seder…Frankly, because I’m already doing everything, I feel like I’m as Jewish as I’m ever going to be.” She goes on to say:
The following essay, “Loving the Stranger: Intimacy between Jews and Non-Jews,” offers both a moving personal testimonial and a profound new understanding of Jewish intermarriage. Dr. Rachel Baum, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies & Hebrew Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, writes, “Is it possible that marrying a non-Jew might help us understand Judaism better. See something against a new background, which we couldn’t see in the sea of sameness? Is it possible that we, above others, embody most profoundly Judaism’s injunction to love the stranger?” The essay is collected in a new book, “Encountering the Stranger: A Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue,” and is an important addition to the intermarriage conversation. We’re honored to excerpt it here for the first time anywhere:
Loving the Stranger: Intimacy between Jews and Non-Jews
RACHEL N. BAUM
I am a Jew. There is no branch of Judaism that would deny this, despite my maternal grandmother’s marriage to a non-Jew, despite my having celebrated Christmas throughout my childhood, despite my occasional affection for bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. I am a Jew, because my mother is a Jew, and her mother before her, and her mother before that.1
Am I a good Jew? I admit that I bristle at the question. Yet the question, “Is person X a good Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc.?” lies at the heart of much conversation within and among religious communities. Many debates within religious communities can be understood as disagreements over what it means to be a good member of the community. What is essential to the community, what must one have or be in order to identify with that community?
The branches of Judaism define its essence differently. Halacha (the body of Jewish religious jurisprudence) is central to Orthodoxy; Jewish ethics is of fundamental importance to Reform Judaism. Yet the determination of what makes a “good Jew” is not limited to religious Judaism, but extends to secular Jewish culture as well. And here, despite the differences between the religious and the secular, there is a surprising amount of agreement on the challenges facing the Jewish community.
Earlier this month, The Forward featured a piece on the way the Jewish community looks today. The article highlights an ethnically diverse set of photos, all of Jewish children who, just a decade or so ago, would never have been assumed Jewish, and discusses The Forward’s 2013 project documenting the “changing Jewish landscape.”
The point, of course, is that there is no such thing as “looking Jewish,” nor is there one way to “be Jewish”—not here in America, and not in any of the over 50 countries where Jews live. Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we are constantly talking about the changing face of the Jewish community and how to better serve those who feel marginalized. Once largely (but never entirely) white and Eastern European, the American Jewish community is evolving. With interfaith families, adoptions, and conversions, we have to cast aside our mental picture of who is Jewish, and instead focus on helping those on the periphery of Jewish life feel welcome, regardless of their background.
Before looking at this small collection of photos, picture in your head what you think “Jewish” looks like, then click through and prepare to throw your preconceived notions aside. We look forward to seeing the results of The Forward’s project, and to continuing to guide and contribute to the conversation.
As someone in an interfaith relationship, one thing I am tremendously thankful for is the support of my parents. While they would prefer I be with someone of the Jewish persuasion, at this point what they want most is for me to be happy and loved, regardless of the religion of the person I am with. They have made an incredible effort to both get to know, and include, my boyfriend, and while this may not be the relationship they would have chosen for me, they support it nonetheless (perhaps because my boyfriend is the only person who can go toe-to-toe with my dad on world geography).
Many questions remain, but several of those questions center around including my non-Jewish boyfriend in Jewish traditions, such as Passover seder and lighting the Hanukkah candles. There is a delicate balance to be struck between including someone of another faith, and being sure to not make them uncomfortable participating in, or being around, traditions they have never experienced before. I remember all too well the first time I attended church with my best friend (who is Catholic), and hunched low in the pew as her family knelt so that the rest of the congregation couldn’t see that I wasn’t kneeling.
It was refreshing to read a recent column from the Ufberg/Sclamberg family, Our Two Cents, featured in the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. In the column, the mother of a 37-year-old woman asks the family (a mother, and her son and two daughters) how to gently introduce her daughter’s new beau to their Jewish traditions in a way that he will be comfortable with. The mother makes it clear that she is OK with the fact that her daughter is dating a non-Jewish man. Similar to my mother, what she wants most is for her daughter to be happy. However, she would still like to include him in Jewish family traditions and asks the columnists what suggestions they have. The question was not about “getting rid of” the non-Jewish partner, but instead about how to include him.
Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we often talk about Jewish communities trying alternative structures to welcome in more families and individuals. Whether it be for High Holiday tickets, Shabbat services, Hebrew school, or by implementing our Public Space JudaismSM model. In Newton, Massachusetts, one school is indeed functioning in an alternative format. Instead of being attached to a synagogue, the Sunday School for Jewish Studies functions independent of synagogue membership, allowing it to attract a large number of interfaith families. The school also offers students the option of a b’nai mitzvah, some of which take place in local synagogues, but many of which happen in backyards and conference centers.
The Jewish Advocate recently featured an article, “Teaching the lesson of faith(s)” by Elise Kigner (available on-line to subscribers here), about the school, which maintains a traditional Sunday School curriculum focusing on learning Hebrew as well as studying Torah and Jewish culture, says director Dori Stern. She goes on to say “I try to give them an experience that is fun and traditional.” The article also describes one interfaith family’s decision to send their children to the school instead of join a traditional synagogue:
“Marjie McDaniel said she and her husband Eamon, who isn’t Jewish, explored joining a local Reform temple when their kids were young. The Natick couple was put off, however, when they learned there were restrictions on how much a non-Jewish spouse could participate in services… The Sunday School, however, felt right. It was a place where kids could get a Jewish education, without them joining a temple. And the Sunday School services feel comfortable for her husband.”
When an interfaith family decides to raise their children Jewish, we like to say that this creates a Jewish family where there would not have been one. It is then the responsibility of the Jewish community to welcome these families in and give them the tools and resources to do so. By creating an environment in which interfaith families feel not just welcome, but comfortable, the Sunday School of Jewish Studies is breaking down some of the barriers we so often discuss in our work, such as cost and inclusiveness, and opening their tent in new and innovative ways.
One of the most rewarding parts of my role as National Coordinator of The Mothers Circle is to be a part of the ongoing conversation on The Mothers Circle National Listserve. This is a venue for mothers of other backgrounds who are raising Jewish children to connect with other women like them across North America. The conversations are rich, and the support extended from one mom to the next is, in my opinion, the biggest strength of The Mothers Circle program.
Recently, a mom shared this article (reposted below) with the listserve from The Canadian Jewish News by Rabbi Erin Polansky of Neshamah Congregation of York Region in Vaughan, ON. I love the way she ties what is essentially the mission of The Mothers Circle to Biblical text, emphasizing that we need only look to our own religious tradition to understand the importance and impact of embracing these mothers.
It’s that time of year again. Christmas decorations are popping up everywhere; every other song on the radio is about jingle bells, silent nights or reindeer. We can’t escape it! We Jews often complain about how Christmas overtakes everything—and not just on December 25th, but from just after Halloween to well after New Year’s Eve!
For Jews-by-birth, it is an annual tradition to complain about the prevalence of Christmas. But how often have we stopped to think about how Christmas affects those members of our families who have either converted or have decided to join our families?
Toronto Jews are proud. We don’t hide our heritage and we educate others about it. Yet this pride can be chauvinistic or elitist. Many parents of intermarried children are embarrassed that their child has “married out” and try to hide this from their friends and synagogue communities. Those who have “married out” are looked down upon as if they didn’t achieve the ideal marriage—even if said spouse is wonderful, and a perfect match, there is still a sense of loss and failure.