Weblog Entries for October 2009

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An Exchange over Intermarriage and Assimilation

The Forward recently published an illuminating debate between Jack Wertheimer, a historian at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Their conversation revolved around an op-ed Wertheimer wrote for the Forward titled “Time for Straight Talk about Assimilation.” In the piece, Wertheimer argues that the recent MASA campaign (which we blogged about here) and its subsequent removal from the airwaves “reflects a larger unwillingness to grapple with such issues” as assimilation and intermarriage.

Bronfman agreed, saying that we “must have a national, even an international, discussion about assimilation.” But if we do, we have to move beyond Wertheimer’s archaic argument of intermarriage leading to assimilation. The conversation instead needs to “recognize the unique needs, challenges and opportunities of today’s Jewish population.”

During their back and forth, Bronfman uses as an example Park City, Utah, saying that when he moved there 12 years ago there was “no organized Jewish life.” After designing programs “that were engaging and compelling to any person interested in participating,” they now count over 450 members who affiliate. Bronfman asks:

Jack, if in 12 years a handful of people in a small city in Utah can create a welcoming and vibrant Jewish community, populated by Jewish families of all backgrounds, many of whom are intermarried, why should we believe that such success, with the right strategy, could not happen everywhere?

Wertheimer says in response that creating welcoming institutions isn’t a “panacea,” and we need to “pay attention to intermarriage before it occurs.” Bronfman reminds him that intermarriage is a reality because most Jews don’t grow up in vibrant Jewish communities, which leads to his next point. “It is not only the intermarried who are struggling to find meaningful connections with Jewish life,” he writes. “People of all Jewish backgrounds are leaving or avoiding traditional Jewish institutions.”

We think Bronfman is right on the mark. Intermarriage is not synonymous with assimilation, nor is it the cause of assimilation. To believe so neglects other factors that might cause folks to disengage with the community, such as the high cost of synagogue membership. People don’t intermarry because they want to leave Judaism; they intermarry, as Bronfman says, because they fall in love. He sums it up perfectly when he writes:

The true problem lies not in our choice of life partner, or living in a multicultural society, but in trying to find Jewish institutions that will fully embrace our decision to lead meaningful Jewish lives once married “out.”

Their conversation is enlightening, and we urge you to read the entire dialogue. We hope their exchange will have the intended effect both desire – to see a larger, more in-depth conversation about what we can do to engage and inspire unaffiliated members of the community.

The Torah through a Bent Lens

Torah commentary is nothing new. For centuries, some of the greatest rabbinic thinkers and Jewish scholars have debated, interpreted and explicated every single word and phrase of the Torah. Finding new meaning in the old language is an exciting process, which is why we think a new book from Jewish Mosaic will be wonderful addition to our Jewish library.

Titled “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible,” the book was inspired by the online Torah Queeries project by Jewish Mosaic (a national center for sexual and gender diversity). The book offers what Jewish Mosaic describes as Torah commentary through a “bent lens” and they believe these commentaries will “open up stimulating new insights and highlight previously neglected perspectives.”

For those in the New York area, you can join co-editor Gregg Drinkwater for two free public events featuring conversation about “Torah Queeries” and text study. The first is October 31, 2:10 pm at the JCC in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Ave.), and the second is November 2, 7:30 pm at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU (7 E. 10th Street).

Jewish Mosaic hopes their interpretations will help readers better understand “the intersection of queerness and Jewishness.” We hope so, too. Every new text study creates an opportunity to inspire someone to rediscover the Torah and gain a deeper, more meaningful understanding of Judaism.

The Definition of Jewish

There is an interesting case being argued right now in front of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The court is hearing arguments regarding the definition of “Jewish,” and whether it has to do with a person’s bloodline or religious practice.

A little background: the Jewish Free School, a government funded religious day school in London, refused entry to a child whose father was born Jewish but whose mother converted in a Conservative ceremony. The parents sued, and eventually a court of appeals decided that the school broke race laws by refusing entry. The court decided this because Jews in England are defined not only as a religious group, but also as an ethnic group under the Race Relations Act. Therefore, the school was guilty of racial discrimination.

The school took the case to the newly founded Supreme Court, and we’ll be curious to see what the court finds. How will it define religion? And what effect will the decision have on other religious schools throughout England?

As we wait for the decision, we’ve read some interesting articles analyzing the case and the larger question of who is a Jew. Writing for the British magazine the New Statesman, Sholto Byrnes noted that the question isn’t who is Jewish, but who is Jewish by Orthodox standards. JFS, and by extension the office of the British chief rabbi, decided that a child wasn’t “sufficiently Jewish” because of the mother’s conversion process. By those standards, Byrnes says, the school would prefer to admit a student “given to eating ham sandwiches on Yom Kippur” but whose mother was born Jewish.

Coincidentally, the JTA reported yesterday that a Jewish day school in Russia “was cited for excluding students whose mothers are not Jewish.” Upon their warning, the school changed its policy and no longer requires students to prove their Jewish ancestry.

There is a lot at play here in both these cases – who is Jewish, who decides who is Jewish, and should it be up to others to make that decision? We believe one branch of Judaism should not be in a position to answer these questions for everyone else. Actions and deeds should be enough to demonstrate if someone is indeed living a Jewish life. Why should it matter if someone converted in an Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform ceremony? And what about children of intermarriage whose mother hasn’t converted? If they are being raised in a Jewish home, is it fair to call them “non-Jews” and deny them a place in our community?

We should be encouraging intermarried/interpartnered families, whether or not the non-Jewish spouse has converted, to make more Jewish choices. Creating barriers for these families sends the message that we don’t want them, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

More Interfaith Relationships in Prime Time

For the second time this month, a comedy on Fox dealt with the subject of Jewish interfaith relationships. First it was “Family Guy,” where Lois Griffin found out that her mother was Jewish, meaning Lois and her husband, Peter, are now an intermarried couple. Then last Wednesday, the hit television show “Glee” had a subplot revolving around interfaith dating.

Noah Puckerman, the Mohawk sporting member of the glee club, explained during the episode (in a voice-over flashback) that he started dating Rachel, the other Jewish member of glee, because he had received a “message from God” one evening in a dream. Prior to going to bed that night, Noah and his family were celebrating Simchat Torah by eating Chinese food and watching “Schindler’s List.” As he was eating his “sweet and sour pork,” Noah’s mother turns to him and says, just after we hear gunshots of what we can assume were Nazi’s murdering Jews, “You’re no better than them, Noah. Why can’t you date a Jewish girl?”

So Noah does his best to force the issue. He doesn’t really like Rachel, but thinks that because both are Jewish, they have to date. It’s what God and his mother wants. When the relationship inevitably falls apart (because they both have eyes for others), Noah remarks, “Damn, I’m such a bad Jew,” and continues pursuing the Christian cheerleader.

Take away the hyperbole, and you’re left with the questions most Jewish teens grapple with while dating. Should I date only Jews, or date people who will make me happy? Obviously we don’t begrudge anyone who wants to date only Jews, but dating someone for only that reason is rarely a good idea. Those relationships lack one vital element - love. We believe a strong and meaningful Jewish family life can spring from finding a partner of any religious background who not only makes you happy, but is also willing to travel with you down a Jewish path.

The Legacy of Patrilineal Descent

It’s been over 25 years since the Reform Movement voted to accept as Jews the children of patrilineal descent. Despite the vehement opposition of both the Orthodox and Conservative denominations at the time, the Jewish community is still standing. And by many counts, it’s much stronger.

Writing in the (New York) Jewish Week, Julie Weiner took a look back to see how the groundbreaking resolution has impacted the Jewish community. She writes:

The decision, along with outreach efforts to make interfaith families feel welcome in its synagogues, is widely credited as being a huge factor in the Reform movement surpassing the Conservative movement to become the largest stream of American Judaism.

This is a far cry from the hysteria that surrounded the resolution when it was first announced in March of 1983. An open letter to the New York Times published just three months later, penned by an Orthodox rabbi, said “every member of a Reform family will henceforth be subject to scrutiny to determine whether he or she is genuinely Jewish by Biblical definition.” The Conservative movement, during their 1984 Rabbinical Assembly, “overwhelmingly rejected any changes in the traditional Jewish law,” said an article in the United Press International.

Despite all of this, Julie noticed that the 25th anniversary came and went with “no major pronouncements or reflections from Reform leaders.” Why not? Was the movement “embarrassed or ambivalent about the decision,” she wondered?

Most Reform leaders I talk to insist the opposite is true. They argue that patrilineal descent has been so successful, so accepted, that no one gives it a second thought.

But simply passing a resolution didn’t have a magical affect on demographics. It was the first step towards creating a greater sense of inclusion. The resolution let people know that Judaism is more than DNA. Which parent passed the religion along was less important than whether or not the child was being raised as a Jew. Most notably, though, children with a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father now had people publicly standing up for their rights at Jews.

Of course, over 25 years later this is still an issue. Jews of patrilineal descent are still viewed by many as illegitimate. Julie talked to JOI’s associate executive director Paul Golin, who believes the Reform movement needs to do more to “educate people” and make sure patrilineal Jews are “armed with a response and don’t suddenly feel blindsided when they meet Jews who say ‘Oh, you’re not really Jewish because your mother isn’t Jewish.’”

There will likely never be a consensus across denominations regarding patrilineal descent, but the lack of pageantry regarding the anniversary, as Julie points out, is telling. Not just from the Reform side, but nothing from the Orthodox or Conservative movements either. Perhaps it’s because intermarriage is more common today than it was 25 years ago, and each stream of Judaism recognizes that focusing on who is or isn’t legitimately Jewish is less important than focusing on getting people – regardless of their background – to make Jewish choices.

Stop Blaming Jewish Men

We’ve been enjoying the new Jewish webzine Tablet (the former Nextbook) for its high-quality writing and interesting topics. However, we were disappointed to read a recent piece by Liel Leibovitz called “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Why Jewish producers kept Jewish women off stage and screen.” Leibovitz takes a very selective sampling of Jewish movie history—without a single direct quote from any Jewish movie producers themselves—to reiterate a disturbing claim that we’ve heard before. Like in Sylvia Barack Fishman’s book “Double or Nothing,” Leibovitz seems to suggest that Jewish men’s distaste for their female coreligionists prevented Jewish women from participating in the entertainment industry, and encouraged the widespread portrayal of intermarriage in film and television. (Barack Fishman takes it a step further by suggesting that such portrayals actually help cause intermarriage.)

Leibovitz writes, “Since the dawn of American entertainment, Jewish women were largely rendered invisible, absent everywhere from burlesque to Hollywood to prime-time television. Instead, they watched as their sons and brothers and husbands became successful producers, directors, and impresarios, powerful men who then chose to populate their works with a parade of sexy, sultry shiksas who looked nothing like their female kin.”

There are many flaws in Leibovitz’s argument. To name a few: Barbara Streisand; Lauren Bacall; Bette Midler; Debra Winger; and Natalie Portman. Throughout the history of TV and film, there have been great Jewish leading ladies, sometimes even portraying Jewish characters. Only one, Jennifer Grey, is mentioned in this piece.

Leibovitz begins the article by taking Woody Allen to task for his obsession in “Manhattan” with the “stereotypical all-American” Mariel Hemingway. And while this would be a theme in some other Woody Allen films, like “Annie Hall,” it ignores the fact that Allen’s earlier works all starred the brilliantly funny, Jewish actress (and his first wife) Louise Lasser, and that two of his most recent works star Scarlett Johansson, a child of intermarriage who describes herself as Jewish. Yes, for a period of time—mostly in the late 60s and 1970s—the theme of nebbishy-Jew-chases-blonde-“shiksa”-goddess found a niche, because comedy requires contrast, and intermarriage was a relatively new phenomenon. But that theme does not paint the entire sweep of cinematic history. The contrast of intermarriage can still provide laughs, but it has also been addressed with increasing sophistication for decades now.

To back up his case against Jewish producers, Leibovitz quotes actress Jennifer Grey, who says she got a nose job because “Hollywood is run by Jewish men.” This would be a good argument if the nose job happened before her success. The fact that she had her biggest hits (“Dirty Dancing” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) while still having her “ethnic feature” disproves the theory that she could not be cast because she was “too Jewish looking.”

Of course, the focus on who “looks Jewish” adds another problem to Leibovitz’s theory. Do actresses Goldie Hawn, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Jane Seymour—all of whom consider themselves Jewish—“look Jewish”? Where do they fit into this theory? Does being partially neurotic or a “JAP” nullify the other nuances of Jewish characters like Debra Messing’s on “Will and Grace” or Hawn in “Private Benjamin”? And where does Elizabeth Taylor, as Jew by choice, fit into this theory?

As with so much in America, the issue also goes far beyond “the Jews.” Every minority in the US has valid grievances with the way they have been portrayed in film and television. If we are working with the uncomfortable assumption presented in this article, that Jewish men make all the decisions in Hollywood, then aren’t Jewish men also to blame for the nearly century-long horrendous portrayal of African Americans in film? Or Native Americans? Or the portrayal of Italian-Americans as primarily Mafioso? What are the deep-seated Jewish psychological causes for those stereotypes by Jewish producers? Perhaps there is a simpler answer—that all characters begin with stereotypes, because that’s how the human mind works, and because it’s easy writing, but the good characters are the ones that have enough inner conflict to break out of the mold—and we Jews are just overanalyzing ourselves.

While it is fair to point out stereotypes and negative trends, let’s be balanced about how influential those trends really are, and from where they originate.

Five Imperatives of Outreach

What motivates the work of JOI? What are the moral imperatives that drive us day after day to reach out and welcome in?

JOI Executive Director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky answered those questions during our recent conference in Philadelphia. But we wanted to
bring his words to an audience outside of the conference, so we have posted Kerry’s speech to YouTube (available in two parts).

Our hope is that people who see the video will not only gain a deeper understanding of why we do what we do, but also discover why outreach is so important to the future of the North American Jewish community. “The facts of history are clear,” Kerry said during his speech. “The ethic of welcoming the stranger is a touchstone of ethical Jewish behavior.”

We can look to all the examples throughout Jewish texts to find examples of welcoming the stranger. Kerry, though, points to one passage from Psalms that succinctly captures the essence of our work: “The stone the builders rejected has become our cornerstone.”

We believe this to mean that by welcoming in and engaging all those who find themselves on the periphery of the community – including intermarried/interpartnered families, LGBT Jews, and children of intermarriage – we will guarantee the strength of our Jewish future.

Foundations of Jewish Identity

In her essay titled “There Is No Such Thing as Half,” written for the website, Joanna Brooks describes her experience at her daughter’s Jewish preschool orientation breakfast. In attendance are her “green-eyed Jewish-Mormon daughter Ella” and her friend’s “brown-eyed Jewish-Hindu son Ari.” Their presence spurs Brooks’ reflection on a rabbi’s comments about identity after a mother in the group asks for advice:

“My husband says he’s just not interested,” she tells the group. “But my son asked, ‘Why doesn’t Daddy come to temple with us?’ What do I say?”
“You know what your son is really asking?” asks the rabbi… “Your son is really asking, ‘What am I?’” According to the rabbi, sociologists say children form their religious identities before age five. He tells us that we must avoid confusion at all costs. “Your children need clear and unequivocal messages about their Jewish identity,” the rabbi says.

Tara raises her hand: “My son has a rich Hindu heritage which goes back thousands of years. Are you asking me to create a sense of division between my husband and our son?”
The rabbi wears a blank but resolute expression, then repeats himself as if we did not hear the first time: “Your children need clear and unequivocal messages about their Jewish identity.”

The rabbi believes he is fighting for the very survival of his people. Identity is the name of the trench he will not surrender. But all around him on the plains of history, new tribes are gathering. We vow not to be jackasses. We vow to love what our husbands and wives love. We embrace the mysterious unities forged in the bodies of our clear-eyed children. We give them long and composite names remembering all of their ancestors. Either we are living a new version of religious identity, or we are outliving identity altogether.

What Brooks is describing is the process that many intermarried/interpartnered couples face: The experience of exploring and asserting a multifaceted family identity in the context of a community that often can only imagine single-identity upbringings. While the rabbi argues for the virtue of clarity, Brooks advocates for the virtue of allowing complexity to remain complex. This is an argument many who engage with the Jewish community have heard before and even taken part in, as it captures a central concern of intercultural childrearing. What conception of the intercultural self is most ethical? Which is most compassionate for the future or respectful of the past? Which is most “effective” for raising kind children and fostering stable families?

Although they reach opposite conclusions, both Brooks’ and the rabbi’s arguments are rooted, in part, in respect for ancestors and a concern for the emotional life of children. Both imagine a child with self-respect and gratitude for their parents, but for opposite reasons: For allowing identity to be singular or allowing it to be plural.

Proponents of single-identity childrearing argue that a child with multiple identities will grow up feeling split between their parents, but Brooks reverses the prognosis: “You are a whole soul living in a divided world.” It is the community that will be confused, but not the child.

What both arguments fail to prioritize is that particularity, in this case the parents’ relationship and their family culture, significantly skews the outcome of either approach. Feeling “split” is not tied to being raised with dual identities. In a family where the parents pressure their child for validation, a child might feel that they need to “choose” between their parents regardless of religious affiliation. Equally, a “sense of division” is not tied to a single-identity upbringing. In a family where children feel that there is inequality between their parents or that there is a heritage of repression, a child might feel that they have been denied a part of themselves, regardless of religious identity.

In the last paragraph, Brooks directs a blessing to her children:

“Sanctify yourself with righteous words and deeds, and you will have nothing to worry about.”

That may be the beginning of unpacking identity, but as Brooks’ essay shows, the conversation in the Jewish community is just beginning. A foundation of self-respect, respect for children, and respect for others needs to be at the core of these arguments about child-rearing, but there are still many complexities to discuss before our community reaches an “answer.”

Evolving Perspectives on Intermarriage

Though many only see the negative side of interfaith relationships, we often say they are missing the potential opportunities for Jewish engagement. In a personal essay in the Forward, author and poet Hila Ratzabi explains how her perspective of interfaith relationships has changed since entering into one herself.

Raised with the “implied assumption” that she was expected to marry a Jew, Hila eventually realized that she could raise Jewish children, celebrate Jewish holidays, and practice Jewish teachings on social and economic justice “with a supportive non-Jewish partner.” This is possible for her because she is more concerned with behaving “Jewishly” and incorporating “great Jewish teachings” into her life than “worrying about identity labels.”

Being Jewish, she writes, is “not about genetics, but about practicing a set of ideals that will hopefully inspire the world to become a more peaceful place.” In that sense, the background of her partner matters little, as long as he shares and supports her brand of Judaism. With the two working towards a common goal, they can lead a meaningful Jewish life.

This is the same philosophy that drives many of the programs JOI has designed over the years, including Mothers Circle and our upcoming Answering Your Jewish Children, a program for men of other religious backgrounds who are raising Jewish children. And it’s here that we see an opportunity for engagement.

Many Jews who intermarry/interpartner want to practice Judaism and want to raise children who have a strong sense of their Jewish background. We need to provide the resources to help bring Judaism into their lives. Focusing on why intermarried families or interfaith couples can’t participate will do little to endear anyone. Focusing on how to help these couples lead a Jewish life and engage with the community is far more beneficial to the future of Judaism.

How Families React to Intermarriage

One of the first challenges many interfaith couple’s encounter is the first meeting with prospective in-laws. Sometimes things can go smoothly, other times this can prove to be a challenging obstacle. Writing in the Forward, John Purchase (who grew up Mormon but has since converted to Judaism) remembers what it was like in his pre-conversion days, when he had to meet the Jewish in-laws of his first wife.

At first, he said, there were stereotypical platitudes. But it didn’t take long for John to feel like “lobster bisque at a Seder.” John’s future mother-in-law eventually asked the couple to sit down for a chat. He recalled:

The get-together ended with her mom begging us, through tears and sobs, not to marry, because nothing good could come of it. I was nice, but I wasn’t a Jew, and the cultural gap was impassable.

John described his range of emotions as going from “bemusement to humiliation to anger.” His parents weren’t much better, making no effort to hide their disappointment that he was going to “marry outside the faith.”

Eventually everyone came to terms with the relationship. John’s decision to convert certainly helped endear him to his in-laws, and his parents, possibly recognizing that acceptance was a healthier attitude than condemnation, grew to love his future wife.

The roller coaster of emotions John experienced – both internal and external – summarize just how sensitive families need to be when the subject of interfaith marriage is broached. Although John’s marriage ended after 12 years (which, he said, had nothing to do with religion), imagine how tense family relations would have been had the in-laws not embraced the spouses of their respective children. What effect would that have on the relationship with grandchildren?

Every parent will react differently when they learn their child is in a serious relationship with someone of another religious background. When this moment arises, parents need to take a second to ask themselves which is better: to set a tone of disappointment, or a tone of warmth and acceptance? We believe the latter, as a positive experience from the outset will indicate how welcoming and inclusive the Jewish community can be for all in our midst.

Inclusive Changes in Philadelphia

The Jewish Exponent, the weekly Jewish newspaper of Philadelphia, recently announced an inclusive new policy change. The Jewish Publishing Group, which oversees the Jewish Exponent, “has voted unanimously to include notices of gay and lesbian unions in the publication’s life-cycles section.”

Lisa Hostein, the editor-in-chief, explained that the paper already includes birth, adoption and death notices for LGBT couples, so it’s only natural for the paper to include their unions as well. The policy change, along with the Exponent’s “extensive coverage” of LBGT Jewish communal issues this past year, is also a reflection upon evolving attitudes of society as a whole. The leadership at the Exponent is simply trying to be “as inclusive as possible” towards everyone they serve in the Jewish community.

At JOI, we mostly speak of physical spaces – synagogues or Jewish community centers for example – when talking about opening our doors. But the Exponent reminds us that the pages of a Jewish newspaper are just as important as points of entry. The paper, which also prints interfaith union announcements, has reaffirmed its “commitment to be a venue where all Jews – regardless of political, religious, or sexual orientation – fell welcome.” Just like our Big Tent Judaism Coalition, the Jewish Exponent believes all four sides of our communal tent, whether in person or on paper, should be open for all who approach.

Unjustifiable Actions

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National Public Radio reported a story this week that at first sounds like the plot of a novel describing a dystopian future. Vigilante groups of Jewish men in Israeli settlement towns have taken it upon themselves to patrol the streets at night, looking to break up dates between Arab men and Jewish women. The only thing more disturbing is the fact that it’s true.

It’s hard to pinpoint the worst part of this trend. Is it the vigilante group’s bigotry, its self-righteousness, or its misogyny? Other bloggers have criticized the reporter, Sheera Frenkel, for not digging deeper and interviewing Arab men, asking the group about Jewish men dating Arab women, or noting that some Jewish women might actually want to date Arab men. Perhaps she did and it was cut for time, but her reporting and any editing decisions are beside the point. With statements from the vigilante group like “My heart hurts every time I see a Jewish girl with an Arab,” we are given a vivid picture of the horrifying lengths some will go to prevent interfaith relationships.

Embracing the worst kinds of fear and prejudice to justify vigilante actions is a dangerous step to take, especially in such a volatile area of the world. But the irony of the situation was not lost on one blogger, who wrote:

It’s ironic that these couples are a byproduct of Jewish settlements built in Arab neighborhoods. A battle against the power of hormones seems doomed. If we live together, there will be stolen kisses, there will be real love in some cases, and there will be interfaith children.

This is true whether talking about Israeli settlement towns or public high schools in America. The heart wants what it wants, and no amount of vigilante patrols or ideological arguments will bring an end to intermarriage. The fear of repercussions isn’t going to stop people from dating outside the faith. We need to focus instead on what we can do to help all those who choose spouses or partners of another religious background stay involved in the Jewish community.

From Tolerance to Acceptance

Our big tent just keeps getting bigger.

Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization devoted to promoting inclusion for racially and ethnically diverse members of the Jewish community, held its first summer camp in June (which grew out of years of annual retreats). At the same time, said Sue Fishkoff in the JTA, founders of the Jewish Multiracial Network (JMN), with goals are similar to Be’chol Lashon, “passed leadership on to the next generation and is now run by and for Jews of color.”

The rapid expansion and changes in leadership of these organizations shows us that more opportunities are needed for these folks to come together and explore their Jewish identity. “This is a population that is growing, that deserves our sensitivity, and is not getting it,” said JOI’s Paul Golin in the article. He spoke not only as a representative of JOI, but as someone with a Japanese wife who “expects their future children to face the same questions” that his wife experienced in Jewish settings.

Creating these opportunities is not about segregation, said many parents who attended Be’chol Lashon’s recent fall retreat. It’s about empowerment. “They look at the Be’chol Lashon activities as supplementary, giving them space to explore connections to Judaism without having to explain who they are,” wrote the JTA.

One of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition is to celebrate the diversity of today’s Jewish individuals and households and leave behind assumptions about what Jews “look like” or how families are configured. We applaud both Be’chol Lashon and the JMN for advancing these notions and bringing much needed attention to this population and the challenges they face.

At the end of the article, one participant said that in California, they are lucky to already be tolerant. “But tolerance is just the first step to acceptance, and that’s what we need more of in the Jewish community.” We agree, and believe his insight should be applied to not just those of mixed heritage, but intermarried/interpartnered families, children of intermarriage, and all those who feel they are on the periphery of the Jewish community.

Diversity and Jewish Identity

Is there a danger in keeping things completely “Jewish,” wonders Carly Silver in a blog posting for the magazine New Voices? Or should we be more open to celebrate the diversity that comes with interfaith relationships?

As a physical example of the dangers of exclusivity, Carly brings up Tay-Sachs disease, which affects a large number of Ashkenazi Jews. Her point is that with Tay-Sachs, “the more concentrated the genes, the more chances you have of such a problem.” A commenter from National Tay-Sachs & Allied Disease Association, Inc. pointed out that Tay-Sachs can happen to anyone, but we think Carly was just trying to be provocative (New Voices has that reputation). Instead, we can look at Carly’s example and extrapolate to a more broad reading of the Jewish community.

Trying to insulate ourselves from outsiders – particularly those who come to us through intermarriage – won’t help us grow. While doing what we can to preserve our traditions has certainly been key to our survival, that doesn’t have to happen at the expense of being open and welcoming. “The sense of inclusion can be passed on… no just through heritage,” Carly writes, “but through its sense of community and reverence for the divine.” In other words, a person doesn’t have to be Jewish to help pass on Jewish traditions.

Denouncing intermarriage instead of recognizing opportunities for engagement also adds a heavy stigma to those who do end up marrying someone of another religious background. Carly writes that “many people still see an invisible smear” on partners or spouses who aren’t Jewish but try to enter the Jewish community. This stigma affects more that just the spouse; it affects the Jewish partner, their children, and their relationship to family, friends and the community. One negative experience is all it can take to turn an interfaith couple off of Judaism forever.

In the end, Jewish identity evolves when a person or family is free to explore their heritage with no stigmas and no judgments. Jewish history is born from a diversity of people and ideas. Today, would we rather make people feel bad for the choices they make, or accept their choices, open our doors, and try to encourage them to follow a Jewish path?

The Successful Synagogue of the Future

Taking a page from the 1939 World’s Fair “World of Tomorrow,” Amy L. Sales (associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University), recently wrote an essay for the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ fall journal looking at the synagogue of tomorrow. She begins with the premise that the role of the synagogue is changing, and wonders what synagogues can do to remain a vital part of Jewish life in the future.

Dr. Sales identifies three benchmarks that synagogues need to reach in order to stay relevant. She writes that synagogues must: embrace best practices in the nonprofit world, respond to “shifting values of American Jewry without relinquishing its own values,” and understand the tendencies of young Jewish adults and invest in efforts to draw in this population.

She envisions a totally new dynamic for both financing and participation in American synagogues. By following in the model of nonprofits – which have “come to appreciate the need for greater effectiveness in fund-raising and financial resource development” – she believes a successful synagogue will figure out how to “make the case” for support “and it will engage professional and lay leadership in carrying the message.”

While she believes all of the benchmarks she identifies are key components for success, Dr. Sales highlights a specific area that perhaps poses the “greatest challenge” for synagogues. She writes:

Jewish organizations, most of which are no longer 100% Jewish, are expected to be sensitive to and inclusive of a diverse population. The successful synagogue will be a place where everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, feels comfortable and at home.

We agree and believe this is the best place to start. Creating an open and welcoming space is like knocking down the first domino. Take the first positive step for inclusion, and everything else will begin to fall into place.

What do you think of Dr. Sales’ essay? We’d love to hear your comments!

TV’s Newest Jewish Character

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It seems the Jewish community can now claim another Jewish character on television: Lois Griffin, from the Fox animated sitcom The Family Guy.

In last Sunday’s episode, it’s revealed that Lois Griffin’s mother, Barbara Pewterschmidt, is Jewish. The episode revolves around Lois and her husband, Peter, discovering what it means to be a Jewish family (in the typically off-the-wall fashion of The Family Guy).

Much of the content of the episode is not fit for reproduction here, but the premise brings up some interesting notions about Jewish identity and intermarriage. The family takes for granted that family members are now Jewish simply because Lois’ mother was Jewish, even though they have never done anything Jewish in practice. And while exploring their heritage, which includes joining a synagogue and holding a Passover Seder, Peter has a moment of crisis when he is visited by the ghost of his Catholic father, who tells Peter not to abandon his faith. The last act of the show then becomes about navigating the challenges of living in an interfaith home.

Having these issues played out on The Family Guy might not be the best venue to elevate conversations about intermarriage, children of intermarriage and Jewish identity, but the fact that one of televisions most popular sitcoms based an entire episode around these issues shows us just how common they have become. Art (and I use that term somewhat loosely here) is a reflection of life, and perhaps giving these subjects a prominent role will help remove their stigma and pave the way for more interfaith families to begin their own Jewish journeys.

A Growing Voice for Inclusion

The voice of the Conservative movement is really beginning to solidify in terms of its approach to intermarried families. Just a few days ago we blogged about a Rosh Hashanah sermon from Rabbi Gil Steinlauf in which he advocated for doing more to include and welcome intermarried families. Now, we have an op-ed from Rabbi David Lerner in the (New York) Jewish Week explaining how his congregation – Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass – is working with interfaith families to find ways “within Jewish law to embrace those families who wish to journey with us.” He writes:

Over time, I have come to appreciate more and more the devotion of the dozens of intermarried couples among our 535 families. Those couples with children often work hard to provide their children with a strong Jewish identity and education. Giving of their time, resources and energy, they donate to the community on many levels — serving on committees and making the choice to raise their children as Jews. My experience with these families has convinced me to reconsider my own approach to intermarriage.

Why should we push away those who want to be a part of a Conservative synagogue? Rather, given the shrinking numbers of American Jews in general and Conservative Jews in particular, should we not find ways to accommodate those who want to share in our vibrant Jewish communities?

Rabbi Lerner said his congregation has found ways to include the spouse of another religious background in life cycle events like baby-naming and b’nai mitzvah celebrations while remaining faithful to halacha (Jewish law). He even wonders if there is a way to “create a ceremony to recognize intermarried couples who commit to raising their children as Jews.”

As part of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, Rabbi Lerner and his congregation exemplify what we are trying to achieve with BTJ, which is to engage, support and advocate for all those seeking a welcoming Jewish community. Our shared goal of encouraging intermarried/interpartnered families and unaffiliated Jews to make Jewish family choices won’t happen, though, if we don’t provide the opportunity for these folks to discover the value and meaning of Judaism.

“If Conservative Judaism is to remain a relevant and dynamic mainstream movement, it must confront these issues more openly and forthrightly” he writes. It’s for this reason that JOI’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has been, for the first time, invited to speak at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial convention in December. This shows that the Conservative movement understands its outreach strategies have to change if the movement wants to continue to serve the growing diversity of today’s Jewish community.

From Generation to Generation

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Rabbi Craig Axler of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA gave a sermon about passing along values from generation to generation (L’Dor VaDor) at his synagogue’s Yom Kippur Yizkor (memorial) service. Rabbi Axler is going to be facilitating a local Grandparents Circle, a JOI program for Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandchildren, and in his sermon he talked about the unique role that interfaith grandparents have in passing along Jewish values. He said:

[Grandparents Circle] acknowledges that there are significant numbers within our synagogues and the Jewish community in general who are looking for positive ways to share their Judaism with their grandchildren being raised in interfaith homes, but often are unsure of just how proactive they can be.

Through the course of five sessions, Rabbi Axler plans on working with these grandparents to help them identify all those moments where they can, with respect to how their grandchildren are being raised, convey their Jewish heritage. He went on to explain:

Grandparents Circle is structured to be a…group for mutual support, study and strategies to help in sharing one’s Jewish identity with one’s grandchildren; to approach one’s children in the healthiest, most positive manner; to be able to pass on L’Dor VaDor - from one generation to the next the values, experiences and customs that define our own Judaism, knowing that they will be renewed and often reinterpreted by each successive generation.

The Beth Or Grandparents Circle will be meeting on Sundays in November and December. If you live in the greater Philadelphia area and would like more information on the circle, you can check out the Maple Glen page on the Grandparents Circle website or read the full text of the sermon. If you don’t but would like to participate in a circle or learn more, you can check out the website for information on other local circles.

We look forward to your participation!

Intermarriage in North America

Ed Case, CEO of, had a piece in the Jerusalem Post recently explaining why the recent MASA “Lost Jews” campaign was met with so much resistance by American Jews. Israelis, he said, are stuck on the idea that assimilation is the same thing as intermarriage. It’s time to shatter that misconception.

Since organizations like Interfaithfamily and JOI began studying the impact of intermarriage on the Jewish community, we have learned that assimilation isn’t a direct result of intermarriage. Negative reactions to intermarriage have more to do with a loss of Jewish identity. Numerous studies and countless personal stories have shown us that intermarriage isn’t an end, but in fact gives us an opportunity to reach out and engage families that might otherwise choose to not affiliate.

Ed makes reference to the 2005 Boston Jewish Community Survey, which “found that 60 percent of interfaith families are raising their children as Jews.” He notes that the Reform movement, in which more than 25% of the member families are intermarried, is growing “in both numbers and market share.” And we at JOI know from the rapid growth and expansion of our Mothers Circle program, for mothers of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, there is a palpable hunger for programs that help interfaith families navigate the challenges of intermarriage and maintain a Jewish home.

While the MASA ad never used the word “intermarriage,” Ed points out that the “ad was interpreted in America as attacking mixed marriages.” We often say that using negative language when speaking of intermarriage only serves to push people away. Why would intermarried/interpartnered families want to engage with a community that doesn’t seem to respect the choices they have made? The answer is they won’t, and that’s exactly what happens. They are more likely to affiliate and engage if they feel welcomed and included.

As we said last month about the meteoric rise and fall of the MASA ad, an episode like this demonstrates just how wide the gap is between outreach in Israel and America. But it’s also as an opportunity to address issues of affiliation among Jews worldwide and create methods of engagement that work for both communities.

Being Young and Jewish

A posting on the New Voices website, a magazine produced by Jewish college students, raised some questions that we thought were worth bringing to our readers. Blogger Ashley Tedesco wrote that a friend of hers commented, “It’s a weird time to be Jewish. Then again, it’s always a weird time to be Jewish.” This got Ashley thinking about American Jewish identity, noting that “we’re an old people – 5770 and counting! – but we’re constantly being reborn and reshaped as a society. And that sculpting happens with the most malleable of minds and spirits: the youth.”

So what’s doing the sculpting today? What are the things that “you could be sure all of your young Jewish friends know about?” Everyone, she said, knows about JDate, the online dating website created to help Jews meet other Jews. She also brings up Birthright Israel, “hip” Jewish media (like New Voices, Jewcy and Heeb) and intermarriage as all part of the experience of Jewish youth that’s helping to shape Jewish identity.

Of the examples she cites, we believe intermarriage is easily the strongest illustration of what’s shaping our future. It’s changing the traditional Jewish family dynamic in an unprecedented way (and will be around long after JDate). But that’s not a bad thing. Recognizing, accepting and respecting the growing diversity within our homes will help strengthen the Jewish community in the long run. Intermarried families and their children will be more inclined to identify with the Jewish community tomorrow if today we work to demonstrate just how inclusive we can be.

There will always be new elements – either technological or philosophical – that can have an affect on the identity of younger Jews. The specifics certainly change (there couldn’t have been Jewish blogs in pre-Internet days), but the overarching narrative of struggling to merge Jewish identity with modern culture remains.

Which brings us back to Ashley’s question: “What do you think about the idea that it’s a weird time to be young and Jewish in America today?”

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