Entries for Category: Intermarriage
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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.
This year, more people will celebrate the holiday of another religion with friends and family than ever before, largely due to intermarriage and our increasingly multicultural society. When helping others to celebrate their traditions, it may be fun and useful to know a little about how the two main December holidays are similar, and how they differ. The below tidbits may add to the appreciation of the other’s holiday, or enable you to better explain your own traditions—or simply provide a good ice-breaker over eggnog or latkes.
Did you know the holidays are similar in that…
1. Both Hanukkah and Christmas have roots in the Winter Solstice. The shortening of the days was the basis for many holidays that pre-date Hanukkah and Christmas. In ancient Rome, December 25th was considered the birthday of the sun, and many cultures who celebrate the Winter Solstice do so by lighting large bonfires both in public and near their homes. Others see it as a purifying holiday and incorporate ritual cleansings into their celebrations.
Years ago, the television world seemed to be mostly Christian families with the occasional Jewish family, often “the kid next door” or a family that popped up during the winter holiday season. Nowadays, not only is it more common to see Jewish families at the center of a TV show, but we are also seeing more interfaith couples.
It used to be the case that this only came up on the yearly holiday episodes, but ABC drama Private Practice has highlighted the interfaith marriage of Charlotte and Cooper several times over the last year or so, such as when the couple got hitched, and most significantly in this week’s episode, Life Support.
I freely admit that I’m a big fan of Private Practice, having started watching the show in the beginning when Dr. Addison Montgomery left Seattle Grace Hospital for greener (and warmer) pastures (the character left Grey’s Anatomy, prompting Private Practice, which is essentially a spin-off). The show has featured interracial couples, lesbian and gay couples, single parent families, and plenty of other family and couple “structures,” if you will. In this weeks’ episode, Charlotte is about to give birth, and the couple’s son, Mason (who has his own complicated interfaith family storyline), asks Cooper, his father, if he can have a Bar Mitzvah. This prompts the couple to briefly discuss if the soon-to-be-born triplets will be having Bat Mitzvahs, or if they will be baptized.
Originally posted on State of Formation in 2011 and reposted with permission from the author, Yaira Robinson.
“But Mom, we can’t celebrate Hanukkah—because then Santa won’t come, right?”
This was the question from my clearly worried 7-year old last December as we prepared to celebrate our first Hanukkah. And just like that, all of the confusing family issues surrounding my conversion to Judaism were distilled into one simple, innocent wondering. In that moment, standing there in the kitchen with my youngest son, there was really only one answer: “No, sweetie… Santa loves Hanukkah!”
I tell this story in answer to a question I’m getting a lot recently, since I converted to Judaism this past spring and am committed to raising my children as Jews: “Just how does your family celebrate the holidays now?”
As with most things in life that really matter, a full and honest answer is not a simple one. My husband isn’t Jewish, and doesn’t plan to become Jewish, but he is supportive—and for the last almost two years, our boys and I have been moving into Judaism in meaningful, deliberate ways. We light Shabbat candles on Friday night, regularly attend synagogue, and celebrate holidays with friends. I converted this past April. As of this fall, the kids are learning Hebrew and attending religious school on Sunday mornings.
They increasingly think of themselves as Jewish. At the beginning of this school year, my 6th grader came home from youth group and exclaimed, “Mom, I’m not the only Jewish kid at school!” And the other day when I caught him watching YouTube videos instead of cleaning his room, I had a hard time feigning anger; he was watching “Candlelight,” the Maccabeats’ Hanukkah song, on my laptop.
Their growing sense of Jewish identity and at-home-ness in Judaism gives me a deep sense of joy, and a fair amount of relief. I am glad to know that they will grow up with a sense of belonging, even though they were 7 and 9 before we found our permanent religious home. (Read my previous essay, “Choosing My Religion,” for more on the importance of having a religious home.)
But now, we find ourselves faced with a choosing-Judaism holiday dilemma: What do we do with Santa?
Sandra Armstrong is a special education preschool teacher and author who lives in Kailua, Hawaii. She recently published an autobiography, “A Jewish Girl & a Not-So-Jewish Boy,” about Judaism and her interfaith marriage.
With Christmas and Hanukkah around the corner, it made me think back 35 years to when my husband Don and I were newly married.
I called the local synagogue and spoke directly to the secretary. Since my married name was Armstrong, she did not mince words with me. She stated clearly that because my husband was not Jewish, we could not be members of the synagogue. Ouch! Obviously, it was not a pleasant phone conversation. She preempted the Rabbi, to whom I should have spoken to directly. I was young and hurt, but I didn’t let it stop us from attending High Holidays services or participating in the Young Couples Club. Long-standing members were gracious and welcoming to us. We fondly remember the warm glow of acceptance that was cast upon us by them. There is something very unique about Judaism. It seeps deep into your soul, and even if you were raised without a Jewish education, you maintain an ethnic identity. This is how it was for me.
We began our married lives celebrating Jewish holidays like Hanukkah and Passover. I always observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because I didn’t know how to celebrate any others yet. We also celebrated Christmas and Easter for Don. We attended synagogue on the High Holidays and a church service once while visiting with Don’s Grandmother Armstrong in North Carolina. We did just fine with this arrangement. Don was raised with Christmas and Easter, and my family celebrated Hanukkah and Passover. I have to admit that I was not thrilled the first time we brought a Christmas tree home. I grew up believing that Jews were not allowed to celebrate Christmas. It was the big no-no.
Our recently released report on the success of The Mothers Circle is starting to make waves, as more communities are asking us to share this important program.
The fact is that when an intermarried couple decides to make a Jewish home for their children, it is often the mother who bears the primary responsibility for making the home Jewish. And when this mother does not have a Jewish background, the task may seem impossible. The fact is, too, that non-Jewish mothers in interfaith relationships have been less than welcomed by the Jewish community. Without the necessary support, many of these women may abandon Jewishness altogether.
Enter The Mothers Circle. At the Jewish Outreach Institute we believe that interfaith couples are an opportunity, not a threat to the Jewish community. With the right support, and the right welcoming attitude on the part of our communities, these mothers and their family can become part of our Big Tent, creating a Jewish home where there may not have been one before.
Which brings me back to this latest report. Through our research, we learned that participants of the 16-session course become more comfortable doing Jewish activities, bring more Jewish practices into the home (for example, the percentage of those who say they currently light Shabbat candles at home jumps from 50% to 83% following the course), and begin their journey toward greater Jewish engagement by choosing Jewish education for their children and participating in Jewish institutions.
Most of America is returning to their normal routines now that the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is over. Some see this period of time as the beginning of the Christmas season (or should I say “Christmas shopping season” starting with the so-called Black Friday). The winter season, centered around the national holiday of Christmas, has been joined by Hanukkah as the national Jewish holiday, much to the chagrin of some in the Jewish community who try to minimize the holiday, among whom I do not consider myself.
Although Thanksgiving has its roots in the Biblical celebration of Sukkot, it has clearly evolved as one of the premier fully American holidays. While some may argue that Shavuot (which occurs in the spring) is the best example of an outreach holiday, since Ruth famously takes on Judaism when she says “Your people will be my people, your Gd will be my Gd,” for others it is Thanksgiving, since families don’t have to make any religious decisions (only with whom to spend Thanksgiving and that isn’t always easy). Nevertheless, there are many lessons learned during Thanksgiving that perhaps can inform the winter holiday season and the celebration of the holidays, which is often more difficult for some interfaith families.
Most people think that it is the conflict of holiday theology and observance that causes friction to surface during the winter solstice season. In reality, what usually happens is that folks who don’t see each other during the year are suddenly placed in constant contact, sometimes even under the same roof. And long unresolved issues bubble to the surface. Perhaps this doesn’t happen when friends and family get together for Thanksgiving because of the shared values in Thanksgiving.
I am not advocating for a syncretism between Christmas and Hanukkah nor a blending of tradition. Each holiday needs its separate identity and celebration—even if the place of importance for these holidays differs in their requisite faith tradition. But as Judaism enters the marketplace of ideas, perhaps there are some ideas and values that emerge from Hanukkah that would be of interest to others, irrespective of their faith tradition.
Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of religious freedom. It reflects the strength and fortitude of a small group of people dedicated to this idea, willing to place themselves in mortal danger in order to advocate for such freedoms, an idea that can transcend differences in traditions. How’s that for starters?
Every December, I eagerly awaited Hanukkah with my mom and my brother. Lighting my great-grandmother’s menorah and together reciting the beautiful prayer whose words I carefully sounded out without knowing their meaning made me feel special. As the daughter of intermarried, non-religious parents growing up in small desert towns in the Southwest, I had little exposure to Judaism. I always knew that I was Jewish, but I had no idea what “being Jewish” meant. Our annual candle lighting gave me only a shadow of what I was grasping for—a fleeting sense of connection to a rich tradition and community.
It was not until college that I had the chance to grapple with what Judaism holds for me and craft a meaningful Jewish identity for myself. A few months into my freshman year, I tagged along with an acquaintance to Shabbat services at the campus Hillel. There, I found a warm and vibrant community of wonderful people to which I was immediately drawn. But though I desperately wanted to belong, I felt like kind of an imposter. After all, it seemed like everyone else had gone to Jewish summer camp; they knew what all those Hebrew words meant (even in transliteration, I was still lost); they had family stories of Bat Mitzvahs and Jewish grandmothers and hamantaschen (delicious triangular cookies made for the holiday of Purim); and I had none. How could I ever find my place in this community?
My own preconceived notions and others’ friendly assumptions proved major inhibitions. Inexplicably though, I kept returning each Friday night for services, sitting there silently, trying to fit in and follow along. I eventually realized that the homogeneity of “Super Jews” was a mirage, and people came from all sorts of backgrounds. The tent was bigger and more varied than I thought it was, but it took a long journey to find my place in it—even a big tent can have intimidating flaps.
I have just read with interest the latest report about the impact of Birthright Israel. This celebrated 10-day Israel immersion program proves once again that its impact on participants is robust and–the point of this latest report–long-lasting. Even a decade after participating in the trip, participants show greater Jewish engagement on a wide range of measures (compared to similar kids who applied to the program but never got to go)–from feeling connected to Israel, to celebrating Jewish holidays, to synagogue membership. But the focus of this report seems to be the finding that:
Taglit alumni inmarry at rates greater than would be expected based on socio-demographic research, and at significantly greater rates than others who did not participate. (Page 30)
More precisely, Birthright participants are 45% more likely than nonparticipants to marry other Jews.
That this should be highlighted as the study’s most important finding is disappointing. Intermarriage by itself should not be seen as an ultimate ill plaguing the Jewish community, disengagement should. We know that, from a sociological standpoint, intermarried households who are Jewishly engaged look very similar to inmarried households; and additionally, unengaged Jewish households look very similar as well, regardless of whether both spouses are Jewish or only one.
I would like, instead, to highlight a different finding of this same report:
“Taglit participants and nonparticipants who are intermarried are equally likely to be raising their oldest child Jewish.” (Page 24)