Weblog Entries for Category: Intermarriage

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Millennials are Asking, Why be Jewish?

This piece was originally featured in The New Jersey Jewish News on March, 12, 2014. To read it, please click here.

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passe. Forget the Jewish legal dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! —forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

The problem with the who-is-a-Jew question is the binary premise from which it springs: that there is an “us” and a “them.” (Worse, perhaps, is the accompanying hope that we will one day delineate a set of criteria that define who is an “us” and who is a “them.”) The premise itself is as boring and potentially harmful as the question it gives rise to. It has infiltrated our national debate in a variety of guises: Who is affiliated and who is unaffiliated? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who is a member and who is a non-member? Who is inmarried and who is intermarried?

And, of utmost importance in the case of Millennials: Are your parents both Jewish? For 48 percent of us, the answer is no.


Where Have All the Mothers (of The Mothers Circle) Gone?

The debate over the effects of intermarriage on the future of the American Jewish community has frequently returned to one question: does outreach to the intermarried work? Most in the organized Jewish community would agree that the future we want is one where our ranks are numerous, Jewish life is vibrant, and Jewish institutions are valued for the purpose they serve. Many also believe that reaching out to intermarried couples, embracing them warmly, and welcoming them into our folds would result in larger, more vibrant Jewish communities. But does it?

What do we really know about the effects of outreach to the intermarried? To date, the evidence we have has been lacking. Most of what we know about the Jewish engagement of intermarried families comes from large, general population studies such as the National Jewish Population Study and the more recent study by the Pew Research Center. While both are obviously extremely valuable in understanding overall patterns of Jewish engagement, we have little data on the effects of specific programmatic interventions. What are the best ways to support intermarried families and encourage their participation in Jewish life? And what are the results we can reasonably expect? The latest study by Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) provides some answers.

Over the past decade, JOI has been implementing The Mothers Circle – one of our flagship programs which serves mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children in the context of an intermarriage/interpartnership. The program combines basic Jewish education with exposure to Jewish community resource and a supportive network of other women in a similar situation. From graduates of the program, we hear that creating this warm and nonjudgmental space in which to explore the various challenges of raising children in a religion they are unfamiliar with was the most impactful element of this program.

To date, The Mothers Circle has been offered in over 150 communities across North America and served over 2,100 mothers. What happens to these mothers after they graduate from The Mothers Circle? More specifically, to what extent has The Mothers Circle helped them take the journey toward greater Jewish engagement, making Jewish homes, and raising Jewish children? To answer these questions, JOI launched a survey this past October to 775 mothers who have taken the course between one and seven years ago; we collected 148 complete responses.


Creating an Inclusive Jewish Community Shouldn’t Be Complicated

In a recent Kveller article titled “Can a Christian Mother Raise a Jewish Child? Yes, but It’s Complicated,” the Reverend Eleanor Harrison Bregman wrote about an experience her daughter had at school:

During a recent parent-teacher conference, I learned that my 8-year-old daughter Sophia was asked by a classmate at her Jewish day school, “So your dad is Jewish and your mom isn’t?” Sophia responded, “Yes.” The other child said, “You know if your mom’s not Jewish, then you aren’t either.” According to a teacher who overheard this conversation, Sophia responded, “It’s complicated,” and walked away.

What really cuts to the bone is that Bregman, an ordained minister who serves as a Protestant chaplain at Jewish Home Lifecare in New York City, is married to a Jewish man and raising Jewish children. Bregman is going above and beyond to provide her children with Jewish identities steeped in education, active synagogue life, and Jewish holidays. Her children even underwent Orthodox conversions, which should mean that their Jewish identity would not be brought into question, because some denominations of Judaism define the child’s Jewish identity by the birth mother’s religion, or matrilineal descent. Her family represents the textbook definition of an engaged Jewish household, even falling into the minority of families who send their children to Jewish day schools. The organized Jewish community dreams of having families like the Bregmans.


Gaining a Daughter Rather Than Losing a Son

As the youngest son in my family I didn’t have much trouble with getting engaged to someone who isn’t Jewish, since my older brother had already paved the way for me, forcing my parents to come to terms with the idea when he married his Eastern Orthodox wife. Having been intermarried for nine years now and raising two sons, my brother has closed the book on any concerns or arguments that my parents might have had regarding the issue. My parents have long since dealt with their misgivings and are actively encouraging that their grandchildren be raised with strong influences from their Jewish background and are happy with the results. Therefore, when I brought home a girl who wasn’t Jewish, they didn’t blink or put up any resistance; they just asked when I’m going to propose, and when I finally did they were extremely supportive.

However, it wasn’t like this for my brother. For a long time both he and I were always asked “is she Jewish?” If she wasn’t (which for my brother was rare, making this an even bigger revelation when he did get married) there were many follow-up questions: “okay but it’s not that serious right?” “How will you raise the kids?” “What if she’s turns out to be an anti-Semite?” (Apparently secret anti-Semites often marry Jews only to reveal themselves years later—according to my parents at the time.) Once my parents realized that this time it was, in fact, serious, it was made clear that my brother and sister-in-law’s main concern was how to raise their future kids; input from my parents was important, but secondary. My parents accepted that my sister-in-law and her family were indeed not secret anti-Semites, and the conversations turned to how to proceed with the wedding.


The Importance of Grandparents, through the lens of “My Basmati Bat Mitzvah”

I recently indulged in tween fiction and read My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, the story of Tara Feinstein, your average Indian Jewish American middle school girl. The book, written by Paula Freedman, follows Tara in the lead-up to her Bat Mitzvah, as she struggles with friends, boys, parents, and her identity as both an Indian American and a Jewish American.

Tara’s connection to her grandparents figures prominently throughout the novel. Nani and Nanaji, her Indian grandparents, live large in her heart and memory. Her Jewish grandmother, Gran, lives 15 blocks away. In her quest to be “a normal Jewish kid—with a healthy sprinkling of masala [a delicious blend of Indian spices] on top,” Tara doesn’t want to alienate either parts of her family.

Thankfully, both sides of the family, led in spirit or action by the grandparents, are supportive and welcoming. When Tara accidentally damages the beautiful heirloom sari (draped fabric worn by women) that originally belonged to Nani, her Indian grandmother, it is Gran who takes her to the tailor to transform it into a dress. The two sides of Tara’s family come together for both the Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) celebration—with Gran bringing the traditional vat of matzah ball soup—and (spoiler alert!) Tara’s Bat Mitzvah at the end of the book.


What Does Intermarriage Look Like?

“Intermarriage” means a lot of things. It can mean a marriage between people of different faiths, different cultures, different races, or even more subtle differences, such as differences within a single religion. (It is common to hear a marriage between a Sephardi [Mediterranean] Jew and an Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Jew referred to as an intermarriage). So then what does intermarriage look like?

An Israeli photographer decided to find out, recently releasing a book of photos entitled Intermarried, and several of her photos were recently featured in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times. To compile her subjects, photographer Yael Ben-Zion, herself intermarried, simply put a call out on a New York parents listserve for couples who consider themselves mixed. The result is a beautiful collection of candid photos with simple captions below—some of which paint a picture of how the couple or individual views themselves, and some of which describe how society around them reacted to their union.


Interfaith, According to My Four Year Old

Today’s guest blog comes from Carin Mrotz. After growing up in sunny South Florida, Carin moved to Minnesota on a dare in 1997 and fell in love with the Twin Cities. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children and works for Jewish Community Action. She loves biking and live music, and lives in constant pursuit of the perfect fish taco. The blog was originally posted on TCJewfolk.

I remember the time my son told me his father wasn’t Jewish.

He was 4, and it was December, and we were in the car on our way home from preschool. And he said it just like that. “Mom, Dad isn’t Jewish.” Technically, I already knew. We’d been married 8 years by then, it had come up. But we hadn’t discussed it with Henry yet. We planned to, but we were waiting for the right time, for him to be ready to understand.

We were waiting to talk to him about my father, too. To tell him that he had a fifth grandparent, one he’d never meet. My parents divorced when I was a baby and my mother married my stepfather just a few years later. He’s the man I call “Dad,” and he’s the man Henry knows as “Pop Pop,” but I did also have a father, whom I spent winter breaks and summers with, whom I loved very much, and who died when I was 25, long before Henry was born. And I was waiting to explain this extra grandparent who only exists in pictures now, to Henry, not because he didn’t understand death (we’d lost pets by then), but because we hadn’t yet broached the topic of divorce.

I think we must all have these things we wait to explain to our children, until they’re old enough to really understand. I have friends, also an interfaith family, who had explained to their son that Dad was Jewish and Mom wasn’t, only to end up with the misunderstanding that all boys are Jews and all girls are Christians. So we were waiting until it would make sense. But I think, for me, there was something more there. I wasn’t just worried that Henry wouldn’t understand what we were talking about, I was worried that he’d be confused about what it meant about who he is.


What Could the North American Conservative/Masorti Synagogue Look Like in Five Years?

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute
Rabbi Charles Simon, Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs

Five-year benchmarks are quite commonly employed to measure the progress and success of initiatives. Were a Conservative/Masorti synagogue in the United States to choose to respond positively to demographic change implied by intermarriage, these are some of the issues that will have to be thoughtfully considered and employed.

Synagogue Culture

  1. Disparaging remarks from the pulpit or in the pews will not be tolerated. Religious school children raised in Jewish families will be encouraged to share their experiences in the classroom. The conversation among synagogue leaders will move from who one is marrying to how one is raising children.
  2. Staff members and volunteer leaders in interfaith relationships will not be discouraged nor penalized.
  3. Youth group participants will be welcome to bring friends to events irrespective of their religious backgrounds. Youth leaders will not be limited in their relationships.
  4. Administration and Program

  5. Teachers will be sensitive and respectful of children who have intermarried parents and strongly support their efforts to raise Jewish children.
  6. Synagogue application forms will reflect the religious traditions of people married or partnered to Jews in an equal and non-judgmental manner. Celebrations of those who have intermarried will be affirmed in synagogue publications without distinction. Those who wish to honor their children’s choices with a Kiddush or other celebration will be encouraged/welcomed.
  7. Educational and social programming will be designed to engage people of different religious traditions.
  8. Youth group events will be viewed as an opportunity to bring people close to Judaism and will not be governed by the fear that they promote interfaith relationships.
  9. Life Cycle

  10. Aufrufen (pre-marital blessings) and “Keruv aliyot” (recognition of the decision to have a Jewish family) will serve as an important step to integrate intermarried couples into the community.
  11. Clergy will be able to attend and participate in some capacity in the interfaith weddings of congregants and their children.
  12. Clergy will officiate at funerals and burials of their members and their families who are part of the community irrespective of their religious backgrounds.
  13. Ritual

  14. An adult partner or grandparent from another religious tradition will be able to participate in the life cycle events of their family and their family members.
  15. Patrilineal children will be welcomed in the synagogue and will undergo a “completion ceremony” in anticipation of b’nai mitzvah (rather than a “conversion ceremony”).
  16. Governance

  17. People of different religious traditions will be permitted to sit on synagogue boards as voting members.
  18. People who are part of the community will be considered full members of the synagogue and will be permitted to vote on all issues.


To read the featured article in The Forward referencing this piece, please click here.

Hanukkah Prep Class for LGBT Interfaith Parents Raising Jewish Children

With Hanukkah coming early this year, many families and couples are already planning their Hanukkah meals, making their gift lists, and digging out their latke (potato pancake) recipes. But for those whose partners are Jewish, but are not themselves, it can be challenging to bring a holiday into the home that one didn’t grow up celebrating.

The LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle offers the first of its kind parenting programs to LGBT couples who are raising, or are considering raising, Jewish children. The first program will center around the holiday of Hanukkah, offering a safe space to learn about and discuss how to celebrate the holiday for LGBT interfaith couples. In addition to topics like the story of Hanukkah and the themes of the holiday, participants will also have an opportunity to delve into topics unique to LGBT interfaith couples raising Jewish children, such as how to reclaim the holiday and making the connection between the themes of identity and rededication as they relate to Hanukkah and LGBT interfaith families.

There are two opportunities to participate in the free class, so we hope you will share this information with those you think may be interested, to help spread the word about this wonderful program. For more information, or to RSVP, please contact JOI’s LGBT Interfaith Parents Circle Coordinator, Lisa Hanish, at LHanish[at] .

On Minor Earthquakes and Home Preparedness

Last week a series of minor earthquakes hit the northern Israeli town of T’veria (Tiberius). No harm done, but it did remind everyone in the area that they are living on top of one of the Earth’s major tectonic fault lines. Now everyone is talking about home preparedness kits and aftershocks.

Over here, the North American Jewish community has experienced its own minor earthquake: the image presented by the Pew Research Center’s comprehensive study of the U.S. Jewish population. No harm done, but we were all forcefully reminded of a couple of major fault lines of our own.

On the one hand, we were reminded that the Jewish community extends beyond religious affiliation. Not only are a growing number of Jews identifying as having no religion, but even among those who do consider Judaism their religion, only 39% are synagogue members and only 29% visit a synagogue more than a few times a year.

On the other hand, the Pew aftershocks also brought to the fore the fault lines within the organized Jewish community, which is divided on the issue of how to respond to this increasing lack of institutional affiliation. Is it best to hunker down and focus on the few who still consider Jewish institutions relevant, or is it more advisable to transform existing institutions to accommodate the needs and wants of those who don’t show up?


Writing Our Intermarried Children Out of the Will?

I gasped when I read a recent article by David I. Bernstein in eJewishPhilanthropy that you should cut (or threaten to cut) your child’s inheritance in half if they intermarry– even though most of us know that our parents are living longer and there probably won’t be all that much to inherit. Bernstein goes on to suggest that you should only send your children to colleges with large Jewish populations. (Read: Only pay for college if they go where you want them to go.)

But Jews are no longer (for the most part) meeting their spouses in college. According to the National Jewish Population Study, only 10% of college-aged Jewish men and 18% of college-aged Jewish women are married. That means 90% of all Jewish men and 82% of all Jewish women marry after they get out of college. So there goes your child meeting his or her Jewish spouse in college. Maybe you could put in your will that your child must become a Jewish communal professional in the hopes of meeting another Jew in the workforce. Or we could carry the stereotype even further - they can only work in finance, medicine, or the law - that’s where the Jews are, after all, right? Or media - do we still control the media?

These responses to intermarriage are purely punitive. As parents, we know that punishment only goes so far toward achieving the behaviors we desire in our children. If we cross the line, the rebellion can create a wedge in relationships that last for generations.


A Certificate for Being Jewish

As written proof of their new status, freshly minted adult Jews-by-Choice receive a nifty little certificate to proudly display, stash in a drawer, recycle, or otherwise do with what they will. When you’re born a Jew (traditionally, only by birth to a Jewish mother), you don’t get such a physical memento of your Jewishness.

But what about those of us somewhere in between? What about people who are considered Jewish by birth in some parts of the Jewish community but not in others? I’m talking about the ever-sticky issue of patrilineal descent (being born to a Jewish father and a mother of a different background). And, as you may already know, I’m also talking about myself: My father was Jewish but my mother was not when I was born (though she now is). They raised me in a Jewish home; affiliated with the Jewish Reform movement (the largest religious body to recognize patrilineal descent), I was taught to believe I was a Jew from birth. But, eventually, a variety of circumstances conspired so that it made sense for me to formally undergo a conversion a couple years ago – despite my strong reservations about doing so.

Because I had been raised Jewish and the Conservative movement rabbi overseeing my conversion had seen me participate actively and knowledgeably in services, the conversion process was rather abbreviated for me. I knew going into my meeting with the Bet Din (a court of three rabbis assembled for various purposes, including to oversee a conversion to Judaism) in the lobby of the mikveh (a Jewish ritual bath, immersion in which is a necessary component of conversion to Judaism) that this would be a tad more casual than the conversion of someone who chose Judaism later in life. We skipped the formal education, and the Bet Din didn’t need me to prove my Jewish knowledge by answering questions about Jewish tradition.


Half Full or Half Empty?

Last week, JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin weighed in on the recent Pew research study regarding the current Jewish population in the United States. His comments, which appeared in the article “Half Full or Half Empty” in the New Jersey Jewish News, point out the positives in the study where many are seeing the negatives. Instead of focusing on the million-person increase to the Jewish population over the last decade or so, many are focusing on the high intermarriage rate, believing it spells disaster for the future of the Jewish population. Paul Golin doesn’t see it that way.

“We found an extra million Jews since the last time we counted — and we found it a great disaster!” quipped Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York. His organization tries to integrate unaffiliated and intermarried families into the Jewish community.

“The question people are asking is: What kind of Jews are they? It’s one of the most divisive questions you could ask,” said Golin. “The panic I see being expressed is because the Jews they are finding are not like the Jews who run the Jewish community. They don’t find resonance in the same things, so what do we do about it?”

For us at JOI, the question is not “what kind of a Jew are you,” but simply “do you want to participate in the Jewish community?” If the answer is yes, then we as Jewish communal professionals should help these people and their families to find a place in the community.

Do you agree? Then we invite you to show your support for the 61% of Jewish interfaith families who are raising their children with Jewish identities by sharing the photo below on Facebook.

Build Bridges, Not Walls

The recent publication of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute’s (SSRI) American Jewish Population Estimate: 2012, coupled only a few days later by the release of the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of American Jews threw some in the community into a tail spin of lamentations.

In a New York Times article on the Pew Study Jack Wertheimer, to give just one example, called the findings “a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population.” And the other comments from Jewish communal professionals and researchers closely dovetail Wertheimer’s comment. Non-Orthodox American Jews are now intermarrying at an all-time high rate of 71%. This, surely, spells the destruction of the Jewish community – at least the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Unfortunate references to a “modern Holocaust” have already been made.

But wait a minute. The authors of the SSRI, who have been the primary consultants to the Pew study, makes a very different case: they claim to draw “a portrait of American Jewry [which is,] at least numerically, in ascent rather than in decline.” They estimate the overall number of United States Jews (including children) at a surprisingly high 6.8 million, up 5% from a 6.5 million figure estimated by the same folks, using the same methods, in 2010. “The U.S. Jewish population is substantially larger than previously estimated,” the SSRI authors conclude.


JOI’s Second Feature in Institute of Southern Jewish Life Newsletter

Yesterday we shared an excerpt from the latest Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) newsletter, which features Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI). Today, we would like to share another piece from that same newsletter, a list of ten promises Jewish institutions can make to partners of other backgrounds. To read the entire newsletter, please click here.

A Response to Recent Articles on Intermarriage

There have been numerous pieces about intermarriage in the press lately. I am not really sure why they have suddenly emerged. Perhaps it is the result of several books that have been recently published. But I have decided to follow the advice of one of my teachers in rabbinical school, Alvin Reines z”l (of blessed memory). And while I usually disagreed with much of his religious philosophy, I often appreciated his practical advice. He often told us that sometimes silence is the best response, especially to public positions taken that are patently absurd. Rather, he suggested, let people determine on their own how absurd are the positions. You, he would argue, do not need to point it out. So here are some reasons why I have chosen not to respond, in particular, to those articles that are being written.

1. Unlike in previous articles, neither Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) nor I were named explicitly or implicitly. Our board made a decision some years ago not to respond to such pieces unless we were specifically named since it does no one any good to engage in what I call “Jew wars.”

2. During this time of year, I am particularly mindful of the challenge of being respectful to one another, even in the context of a philosophical debate.

3. I refuse to allow someone else to set the agenda for our work. Rather than responding, I would prefer to follow the advice of my colleague Paul Steinberg z”l who would often say “let your deeds sing your praises.” After 25 years of work, JOI has a proven track record. It can stand on its own as a rebuttal to any claim our critics make.

4. The positions that are being taken are old arguments. We have publicly responded to them on numerous occasions. Since there are no new arguments being made in these articles, it is silly to repeat those arguments.

5. I refuse to allow the work we are doing with regard to intermarriage to be classified in terms like “war” or “battle.” Any response would be an affirmation of such terms.

6. To divide the Jewish community along the lines of intermarriage is archaic. The great divide is along the lines of engagement.

7. To intermarry is a choice people are entitled to make. The goal of the Jewish community must be to provide meaning to these couples, and not to judge the decisions they have made.

8. I fear that these articles allow some people to respond and use such reactions as cover for the positions they take, which are commonly known. Our positions are known and we welcome people who want to work along with us.

It is time to move the conversation away from who people marry to how they raise their children. We welcome all those who want to work with us—and join us in the opportunity to shape an optimistic Jewish future.

Two Faiths, Three Weddings

As a non-practicing Russian Jew, when I got engaged to a non-practicing Catholic, I did not foresee any problems. Sure, our heritages are different and we both have our own distinct cultures, but our morals and values are the same, and although we come from different backgrounds we are both more agnostic than anything else. Our wedding ceremony would be simple and secular, and our families get along so there would be no real problems there…

How naïve I was. The first real bump in the road came when my fiancée and I showed my future mother-in-law the venue: a beautiful spot in Central Park. When the question of who would officiate came up we told her it would be a friend of ours. She very calmly explained to us that not having a religious leader present makes the whole thing unofficial and if we are not going to be married in the eyes of the Church, we might as well not be married at all.


Curious about the “how to’s” of the High Holidays?

How well are you able to share the meaning and value of the Jewish High Holidays with your family?

Here’s how NOT to feel lost and confused during the High Holidays, and truly find the benefit, even if you didn’t grow up celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We invite you to join us for High Holiday Highlights.

High Holiday Highlights is a FREE one-time webinar (interactive online session) from the staff of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and Kit Haspel, a Mothers Circle Coordinator at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.

This webinar will empower you to better understand the value and meaning of the holidays, and provide the opportunity not only to learn, but to interact with fellow participants about blessings and prayers, food traditions, and activities you can do to share the beauty of the holiday with your family.

• When: Wednesday, August 21 at 2:00pm EDT.
• Where: Via phone and any computer connected to the Internet!
• How: RSVP to JOI Communications Manager Amanda Kaletsky here to receive the link.
• Who: Anyone who wants to learn more about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Please feel free to invite any friends, family, or colleagues who may be interested!

High Holiday Highlights is brought to you by The Mothers Circle, a program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children.

What Intermarried Rabbis Can Teach Us

Below is an excerpt from a recent op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News written by JOI Associate Executive Director Paul Golin in response to recent debate in the Jewish community about whether or not rabbis should be permitted to intermarry. To read the complete piece, please click here.

“[…] I’m not the typical intermarried unaffiliated Jew, since I’m also a Jewish communal professional. Still, I think I speak for many intermarried households when it comes to what I want and need from a rabbi. And that might be instructive to the seminaries, who are training clergy for a U.S. population that now has more intermarried than in-married households.

I have two admittedly broad criteria for what I want in a rabbi: Tell me I’m in and mean it — and show me why it’s so amazing.

[…] Rabbis with nontraditional families like my own make me feel more included. Conveying why Judaism is still relevant to them provides me with access I wouldn’t feel elsewhere. The focus is not on how you come in, but what you get out of doing Jewish — in other words, why it’s so amazing.

American liberal Judaism in the 21st century must be about conveying Jewish meaning, not ensuring ethnic survival. Some may lament that rabbis today must first answer “what can Judaism do for me as an individual,” rather than “what am I supposed to do because I’m Jewish.” But the days of obligation-before-meaning are gone.

So tell us why Judaism is better! Why should my children’s ethical foundation be provided by Jewish wisdom rather than the universal ethics they would receive as Americans? Why should I seek spirituality in synagogue when the local meditation studio promises results I never hear offered by rabbis? How can the millennia-long conversations in Jewish texts help make my own life — or the world — better?”

Read the complete text here.

To read New Jersey Jewish News Editor-in-Chief Andrew Silow-Carroll reaction to the piece, please click here.

JOI’s New Program Associate David A.M. Wilensky talks Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness

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.”


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