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Interfaith Couples Encouraged to Visit Israel

Earlier this summer, we blogged about two interfaith trips to Israel – Mitch Cohen’s Israel Encounter, and Interfaith Connection, run through the JCC in San Francisco. Next spring, according to Portland’s Jewish Review, interfaith families will have even more options.

Marisa Brown is chair of the Invitation to Israel, a trip for interfaith couples that aims to “deepen their understanding of each others religious heritage through a shared journey to Israel.” Couples qualify for the trip as long as they identify themselves as interfaith – they don’t have to be married. Brown, who said she came up with the idea while on a trip to Israel in 2007, explained:

“While I was there, I wanted my husband to be there with me,” she said. “Ron’s not Jewish, but I thought how great it would be if we could see it together and that would deepen and strengthen our relationship in a number of ways. He could see the importance of Israel from a Jewish perspective and there’s so much he would be interested in.”

It’s exciting to see this proliferation of interfaith trips to Israel. One thing all three trips have in common is their efforts to keep costs down - or, in the case of Israel Encounter, offer free travel for the non-Jewish spouse. Lowering the cost barrier is a great way to encourage interfaith couples to participate in the trip, where they will hopefully be inspired to embrace and celebrate the heritage of the Jewish partner. We applaud these groups for working to give interfaith couples more access to Israel, which we believe will lead to greater Jewish engagement when they return and a stronger North American Jewish community.



3 Comments

  1. Dear Friends at JOI:

    As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest organization for adult children of intermarriage, I am very disturbed by the new outreach “push” to send interfaith families to Israel as a “quickie” solution to their Jewish identity problems.

    I am frequently told it is the new “silver bullet” for outreach.

    Candidly, these families are not being told the truth on these trips about the deeply entrenched negative laws and social policies against interfaith families actually living in Israel.

    More Russian-Jewish Israelis (mostly intermarried or descedants of intermarriage) are leaving Israel than are making aliyah from the former FSU, largely due to Israeli’s discrimination against them.

    Sending interfaith couples and adult children of intermarriage on short Israel trips in which they are not told the truth will ultimately harm American Jewish outreach efforts — because when these interfaith families learn the truth, they will blame us, the Jewish outreach professionals, for not leveling with them.

    My orgnanization, the Half-Jewish Network, has adopted an entirely different policy.

    We are working with Israeli Jewish organizations in Israel that are fighting the pervasive discrimination and hostility against interfaith families there, including the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families and Reform Judaism’s Israel Religious Action Center.

    Many of my group members arrive at the Half-Jewish Network knowing that many Israelis don’t regard them as Jews, so trying to hide it from them would be out of the question anyway. Some of them have one Israeli parent or Israeli family members.

    I would submit that compassionate caring about Israel would be best nurtured in interfaith families and adult children and other descendants of intermarriage by telling the full truth about Israel’s poor treatment of interfaith families, including persistent revocations of Israeli citizenship and Jewish status, and summoning interfaith family members to assist the Israeli Jews who are fighting this discrimination.

    By not telling these interfaith families the truth, we are depriving the Israeli Jews who are fighting this discrimination of American Jewish allies they desperately need in their struggle for democracy and religious pluralism in Israel.

    For more information on why Israel trips are not a “silver bullet” for interfaith families, please visit:

    http://www.half-jewish.net/birthrightisrael.html

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis

    Comment by Robin Margolis — August 27, 2008 @ 5:22 am

  2. Robin,

    There are a lot of things I find positively revolting about Israeli society. And yet, I think every Jew — and every relative of a Jew — should have the opportunity to visit and decide for him or herself. Programs that subsidize Israel trips offer easier access to such opportunities in the hopes that participants will feel a closer connection to Israel. People who feel a closer connection to Israel will have a greater investment in working toward change in Israel. That’s how I see it, anyway.

    I haven’t been on any of these particular trips for interfaith families, so I don’t know what is or is not discussed about Israeli policity on patrilineal descent or non-Orthodox views of Judaism. Certainly, if you read JOI’s blog (as I KNOW you do! ;), you know that we do not shy away from expressing our discontent about Israeli policy or attitudes on a number of issues. Again, that said, we still find these Israel trips an interesting model because most of us here at JOI have had first-hand experience in the transformative power of visiting Israel (warts and all) and believe that overall it is more helpful than harmful toward strengthening Jewish identity in intermarried households, their children and grandchildren.

    Thanks,
    Paul

    Comment by Paul Golin — August 27, 2008 @ 5:31 am

  3. Dear Paul:

    I am aware that JOI does not gloss over Israeli society’s problematic views towards interfaith families. :)

    I understand your perspective. The idea of sending members of interfaith families on subsidized trips to Israel is very appealing and sometimes a very successful strategy in the short run.

    But what about the long-run results of these trips? I receive reports of Birthright trips in which adult children of intermarriage stand by silently while Israeli guides trash intermarriage.

    Even worse, one trip involved having young adult participants stand in various groups representing “important to marry a Jew” and “not important to marry a Jew.”

    Guess who ended up in the “not important to marry a Jew,” group by herself, singled out for group scrutiny? The adult child of an intermarriage who was on the trip.

    There is going to be serious backlash from this type of thing eventually, as they get older and absorb the message, and gain the adult self-confidence to object.

    It is my understanding that the vast majority of these trips do not encourage them to work for change in Israel. Apparently criticism of Israel is discouraged, and a “rah-rah” atttitude is valued. One non-Orthodox adult child of intermarriage reported keeping silent about his parentage during his entire Birthright trip, due to the hostility of his Orthodox tour group — he had been placed in that tour by accident.

    Another adult child of intermarriage on a non-Orthodox Birthright trip reported voicing some awkward questions about Israel, and then being shunned by his entire tour group, including being dropped by his (two Jewish parents) girlfriend, who was on the trip.

    I doubt that any of these adult children of intermarriage will ever become big Israel supporters, once the full impact of their experiences sinks in.

    With regard to interfaith couples trips — I gather that, unlike the young adult trips on which adult children of intermarriage often end up — interfaith couples are shielded from the truth by their Israeli guides and American trip leaders.

    Nothing is said to them about Israel’s negative policies and laws about interfaith families. No attacks are made on intermarriage by the guides and tour leaders.

    When I questioned one rabbi who leads such trips about the wisdom of concealing the truth from interfaith couples, he admitted that he says something only when a trip participant asks about the discrimination.

    Which of course they don’t. Because they don’t know about it!

    So this was my reply to him: I’m a rabbinical student. You’re a rabbi. Under Talmudic law, if you were selling a couple a home that you knew would be absolutely perfect for them — except that there were termites in the basement — and you opted not to tell them about the termites in the basement — because you wanted them to invest in the beautiful home — is that according to halachach?

    The answer, as he knew, was no, halachah forbids deceptive sales practices.

    I then said, what will the couple think of such a salesperson when they discovery the termites in the basement? Who will they blame for selling them the house?

    He sent me a reply that basically said: Israel comes first, you are wrong to even ask these questions. Then I never heard from him again.

    This is a kindly and ethical rabbi, who is devoted to his Israel trips and his interfaith families.

    I appreciate the idea of Israel trips for interfaith family members, but I do not believe that the way they are currently being handled will build lasting attachments to Israel.

    I hear a great deal about “getting interfaith families to love Israel.” But love shouldn’t be blind. And when it is blind, as we all know from past romances, that relationship usually collapses.

    When I level with adult descendants of intermarriage about the entire morass in which the interfaith families of Israel are living, they are often very angry with Israel and very sad.

    (That’s the ones with no Israeli relatives. The ones with Israeli relatives already know about this.)

    But after a certain amount of major emtional venting, they turn to me and say: “what can we do to help?”

    I am slowly mobilizing my group — which now has over 500 members — to start writing emails to Israeli politicians about interfaith family issues and begin donating to Israeli groups that are fighting for the rights of adult children of intermarriage.

    We’re committed to getting the termites out of the basement. I believe that this is a very useful alternative approach, because they will not have illusions about Israel that they will need to shed. Compassion and caring, from my perspective, are soundly rooted in emet (truth).

    Very cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    www.half-jewish.net

    Comment by Robin Margolis — August 27, 2008 @ 6:59 am

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