New Battleground: The Prom?

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Several weeks ago there was a story in the New York Jewish Week called “Is My Prom Date Kosher?that we at JOI found discouraging on many levels, including the fact that:

  • a Conservative Jewish day school in Westchester, NY, felt the need to announce their policy that non-Jews could not come as dates to their upper-school’s prom;
  • the school seems not to understand how kids date or when people get married these days, by suggesting that “bringing non-Jews to watch a school play or a basketball game is OK” but “there is a greater assumption of intimacy associated with the prom” (the actual average age of marriage is nearly ten years after high school for Jews);
  • and that in the ensuing uproar, some students called the policy racist because it was assumed that administrators would try to stop people, and if “Most people can pass as Jewish…the only red flag would be if someone was another race.” (What RACE is Jewish? An Ethiopian Jew is Jewish, as is a Yemenite Jew or a Russian Jew);

In the end, nobody was stopped at the door even though non-Jews attended, and the article simply served to shine a light on how incapable some Jewish “insiders” (the school AND the students) can be in handling issues surrounding intermarriage and inclusion.

Now for the punch line.

In a letter to the editor about the above article, printed in this week’s edition, we learn that the “non-Jewish” boyfriend of one of the students at the school who pleaded against the policy “was not a non-Jew. He was Jewish by Reform standards, raised Jewishly and was a bar mitzvah.” The girl’s father, who’s writing this letter to the editor, explains that “our home does not encourage interfaith marriage. Though I was raised Catholic, 30 years ago I vowed to my father-in-law (of blessed memory) that I would raise our children as Jews, and that vow has been one of the central commitments of my life. We have raised our children in an exclusively Jewish environment and given them a Jewish day school education. After living Jewishly for 18 years, I formally converted to Judaism 12 years ago, in part because I realized I could best keep that vow by providing a home in which both parents were Jewish.”

The fear of intermarriage is so overwhelming in this community, it seems even this formerly intermarried person (who is now Jewish) still feels the need to justify why both parents must be Jewish (even though he himself raised a Jewish child within the context of an intermarriage for the first six years of the child’s life). Baffling.


  1. Not so baffling, Paul. This man obviously saw the truth: that raising a Jewish child in a non-Jewish society is not just difficult, but prone to the possibility of failure if both parents are not Jewish. Given the statistics in the Jewish Population Survey and the study your web site just posted about children of interfaith relationships (only 26% raised exclusively Jewish), the truth shouldn’t be so hard to see.

    I guess it depends how you see failing to raise a Jewish child with enough Jewish identity to ensure Jewish grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc., etc. If it’s no big deal, then it doesn’t really matter and you can do what you feel like. If, on the other hand, it’s tragic then having two Jewish parents is virtually essential (and even then, that’s only a starting point…a strong Jewish education is also necessary).

    The man who wrote that letter has a lot of integrity and should be applauded.

    Comment by Marc J. — July 15, 2005 @ 1:14 pm

  2. Marc, the raising of a Jewish child is “prone to the possibility of failure” for a whole variety of reasons. The religion of origin of one of the parents is not, in and of itself, one of those reasons. Only when combined with other factors — like the fact that s/he is still practicing that religion and wants his/her children to also, for example; or that both s/he AND the Jewish spouse are indifferent to Judaism — does it manifest itself in “failure” to raise Jewish children.

    It is wrong to assume that two Jewish parents automatically guarantees Jewish continuity. And it is also wrong to assume that one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent automatically guarantees Jewish discontinuity.

    Now, you can point to raw stats based on answer to yes-no questions and say “the odds increase,” and you’d be right, but it’s clear that you don’t want to look any deeper than the raw stats because if you did, you wouldn’t be misrepresenting the findings of our study. Ours was a qualitative study that illustrated just how deciving those raw numbers can be.

    More importantly, you and others in the community are happy to look at past statistics and say that there’s no hope for change. I fundamentally disagree with you, and will not go back and forth with you about it again because you know where I stand and I know where you stand.

    Comment by Paul Golin — July 15, 2005 @ 1:35 pm

  3. Paul, it’s not that I am unwilling to look past raw statistics. I just feel that your study (and other similar studies and off-the-cuff remarks) go out of their way to find the exceptions to the rule and use them to justify life choices which are, as a matter of fact, detrimental to the community because they are, in fact, merely exceptions to the rule.

    It’s not just that the odds increase, it’s that they DRAMATICALLY increase (I never said “automatic”). We shouldn’t overlook this or fail to encourage inmarriage when it’s more likely to work than falsely building up people’s hopes that their decisions will not actually have consequeces…most likely they will.

    I agree with you, though, that this is only one part of the equation and Jewish education also needs to be stressed in both in-married households and in intermarried households where there children are halachically Jewish.

    Comment by Marc J. — July 15, 2005 @ 2:18 pm

  4. The article hit home. Both of our daughter were raised in a jewish home. Our parents, my spouse and I, all were members of a synagogue and our daughter graduated from sunday school and were active there. Both married men who were not born jewish. I one case he was an agnostic, but told our daughter he wanted the children raised jewish and the were. They were both Bar\Bat Mitzah. The other young man, who was Philipino, said you can not raise childred with two religions in the home. Since was not a practicing catholic, he chose to convert. He attended weekly classes for a year before they were married. Both of their children were Bar\Bat Mitvah and graduated from sunday school where they were active.
    All of the grandchildren look forward to the holidays and occasional attend weekly religious services, especially those in college. WE ARE BLESSED.

    Comment by Leon Belin — July 15, 2005 @ 4:07 pm

  5. Leon, thank you for this powerful story and mazel tov on your grandchildren’s bar/bat mitzvah! Both of your daughters’ families are examples of what can be accomplished when we welcome people in rather than push them away. There may be as many as a half-million families just like them, and we at JOI believe the potential is there for us to encourage even more intermarried families to become Jewish families (and we consider all intermarried families who have chosen to raise exclusively Jewish children to be Jewish families), if they could see the joy and meaning that your family members gets out of it.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Paul Golin — July 15, 2005 @ 4:28 pm

  6. Paul, you don’t have to “consider” Leon’s grandchildren Jewish. They ARE Jewish if their mother and their grandmother, etc. are all Jewish.

    Besides I’m not sure what your stamp of approval means exactly. Is someone Jewish just b/c the JOI considers them to be? Don’t think so.

    Comment by Marc J. — July 18, 2005 @ 9:22 am

  7. Leon, thanks for sharing your family’s story. I also feel blessed to have been raised in a loving Jewish household and to be striving to create one with my husband–each of these households, like those of your daughters & sons-in-law, composed of a woman who was born Jewish and a man who was not. My father made the choice of the first son-in-law you tell of: to be a supportive non-Jewish spouse in a Jewish family. My husband made the choice of the second: to enter the covenant and become part of the Jewish people himself. May each household you speak of–the one in which your daughters were raised, and the ones they have created–be valued as a “bayit ne’eman b’yisrael,” a faithful household among the Jewish people.

    Marc: Aye, here’s the rub. You wrote elsewhere on the blog, “if you can point out a sloppy argument Ive made anywhere on this blog and have not agreed to re-phrase, Id be appreciative for it” ( — #8), and “If theres other things I write that come off insulting, please let me know” ( — #22). So here goes:

    When I read your comment #6 above, what I hear (which may not have been what you were intending to say) sounds like it’s picking a fight, and doing it on poorly-grounded premises. Paul didn’t say he or JOI “consider[s]” Leon’s grandchildren Jewish, which you and he both do. What he wrote was something different, something most relevant to issues of language and rhetoric than of those of halakha (which is the definition that you invoked), and one on which you two may or may not disagree:

    “we consider all intermarried families who have chosen to raise exclusively Jewish children to be Jewish families.”

    That is: the family in which I grew up is a Jewish family, even though my father is not a Jew. (And neither he, nor I, nor you, nor JOI, are considering him one.) The family in which Leon’s daughter & first son-in-law have raised their children to Bar/Bat mitzvah is a Jewish one, even though the son-in-law is not Jewish.

    Since Leon’s other daughter & son-in-law, and my husband & myself, are both Jewish, we are not intermarried and hence not immediately relevant to Paul’s comment.

    Or so we would say. And here’s where “consider[ing]” comes in: perhaps there are those who do might not consider my husband, or Leon’s son-in-law, to be Jewish (if they view the auspices under which that conversion was done–e.g., the USCJ in my husband’s case–to be unacceptable even if otherwise complying with all halakhic requirements, or if not all halakhic requirements were fulfilled [as in some Reform and other conversions] to their satisfaction). Then they could consider these marriages to be intermarriages, or have some doubts about whether these are Jewish families. And these may be appropriate matters for an individual synagogue considering status issues, or a rabbi who has been approached about officiating at a lifecycle event, to consider. But in the public forum of discussion in the wider Jewish community, I think it can only help and not hurt to affirm what Paul has said, which may well be the linguistic (NOT halakhic) minimum on which we all can agree–even if we might differ on status issues for the members within the family, or on what kind of conversion is acceptable under what circumstances:

    in the broader American Jewish community, let’s speak of “all intermarried families who have chosen to raise exclusively Jewish children” as “Jewish families.” This doesn’t make the non-Jews in them Jewish. This doesn’t make the children of patrilineal descent Jewish in your shul or in mine. But it does acknowledge the commitment and intent of those who build those families–that they are part of the Jewish people _as_ a Jewish family (however much the number of halakhic Jews in that family might differ depending on who’s doing the counting from which movement), and not some alien entity that happens to somehow contain a Jew or two who’s lost his/her way.

    Your post addresses only Leon’s grandchildren. But Leon’s sons-in-law count too. And other people’s daughters-in-law, non-Jewish or Jews by choice (who might or might not be accepted as such in movements to the right of those who supervised their conversions), and the grandchildren that result from that union, raised Jewish in patrilineal movements or taken to the mikvah for halakhic conversion. That’s what Paul’s talking about. Not rewriting halakha through the language he or JOI uses, but about using language that includes rather than excludes.

    We live in a big, diverse Jewish world: whether you like it or not, whether your shul or mine endorses the policy or not, that world includes movements that draw the boundaries differently, and I can’t see the public good of harping on those distinctions in a forum where we know our Jewish communities disagree.

    You ducked the hard points, the ones on which you and Paul disagree, in favor of what sounds to me — sorry if you meant something else — like just a cheap shot. Your first 2 sentences are a little testy and seemed to be off-track to me, but your subsequent 3 are what really come off as self-indulgent stabs at a straw man so weak as to be perhaps made of air, not even something as solid as straw after all. It doesn’t help you win anyone over to your side rhetorically to make snide comments that sound contemptuous (”Don’t think so”)– whereas showing derekh eretz to all, even or especially those who disagree with you, and scrupulously avoiding the temptation to engage in unnecessary snarkiness, can be much more persuasive.

    So: as Paul has indicated above, we know pretty much what you & he disagree on. So why not talk constructively about what you and he can _agree_ about instead?

    Remember: this is not an Orthodox blog, nor a Conservative one, nor a Reform one, nor anything else. No one movement’s, or rabbi’s, or posek’s, approach to Jewish status issues is accepted by all those who are reading it or posting here. So while you or I may care very much about certain halakhic requirements when we’re discussing internal synagogue policy or whether, if we were rabbis, we would take or not take certain actions, we have to remember that most people in the American Jewish community–including some in our own communities or movements, varying in number and with location but greater than zero– do not. And whatever we may think about that fact, it IS a fact, and it dictates what kinds of conversations and actions can be constructive in which contexts.

    So let’s make these comments constructive–which can of course include appropriate constructive criticism–or not make them at all.

    Comment by Becca — July 22, 2005 @ 1:41 am

  8. Again, Becca, I thank you for pointing out when I come off harsher than I intended…you’re probably right that I came off somewhat antagonistic toward Paul in that post…for that I’m sorry to Paul and to you and other readers.

    I understand your point about Paul’s comment that we [the JOI]consider all intermarried families who have chosen to raise exclusively Jewish children to be Jewish families, but I’m not sure I agree that the issues change in the broader context of the post. It sounded as if Paul was giving the JOI stamp of approval to Leon’s grandchildren and to the “Jewishness” of their family. Now that I reread it, it seems clear that that was the intention, but perhaps I am wrong. Paul wants to encourage more intermarried familes to raise their kids exculsively Jewish. Well, if those kids are actually Jewish, great! If not, then why does he want to do this? That’s what we call proselytizing…trying to convince a non-Jew that they should be Jewish, or, more accurately, trying to convince the parents (be they Jewish or not) that they should raise a halachically non-Jewish child as a Jew. The very notion is absurd and I don’t have to go into the problems this will create for that child down the road if, for example, they wish to marry a Jew from a mroe religious stream, want to join a more religious stream, want to send their kids to a Jewish Day school from another stream, etc., etc. [to say nothing of historic implications of this sort of tactic]

    I also don’t think Leon’s sons-in-law are at issue here. Of course they matter! They are married to his daughters and the fathers of his grandchildren…it would be absurd to say they didn’t matter. Since a woman is considered the guardian of the home in Judaism, however, a “Jewish home” wherein lives a “Jewish family” is one where the wife/mother is halachically Jewish. I don’t think there’s anyway around this. You say that Paul doesn’t want to change halacha, but I’d like to hear from him on this on this matter. I think he either does want to change halacha, or considers it irrelevent to the issue, which is basically the same thing (if I don’t like it and I can’t change it, I’ll ignore it).

    It’s true that we know the points on which Paul and I disagree, but we still don’t know why, and I would like to know. Why doesn’t Paul think one needs to be halachically Jewish to be “considered Jewish?” And does this make any sense when you take into account Jewish history, the current state of the Jewish community, and its future? As you witnessed in our first blog (the “O.C.”), when I tried to find out, Paul attacked me personally. When he is ready to speak openly and honestly and what is best for the Jewish community, as opposed to pursuing some odd goal of increasing our numbers (even if inflated through calling non-Jews “Jews”), then perhaps we can make some progress.

    Shabbat Shalom,


    Comment by Marc J. — July 22, 2005 @ 9:28 am

  9. Marc, I’ll come back to more of what you’ve said soon, but I just want to caution you that when you speak as though Orthodox or traditional Judaism is all of Judaism, you’re going to lose the goodwill of a good many of your interlocutors, myself included.

    For example:

    “Since a woman is considered the guardian of the home in Judaism,”

    –in Jewish tradition, sure. In your Judaism, maybe. In your Jewish home, maybe. In my Judaism? No. In my Jewish home? No. In my Jewish partnership with my spouse, we hold ourselves equally responsible for building the bayit ne’eman b’yisrael that we commited to building when we stood beneath the chuppah eight years ago. I don’t care if you intended this statement to put the Jewish woman on a pedestal rather than as a circumscription of her–of my–role: I’m not getting up there. And neither are plenty of other Jewish women.

    Halakha is halakha. Aggadah is not halakha. Musar is not halakha. Commentary and exegesis and local minhag is not halakha. You want to talk about halakha, talk about halakha. You and I agree on the facts: halakha in your movement and in mine is that Jewish status follows the mother, not the father. But I don’t have to, and will not, buy into any post facto justification about the woman as guardian of the home to give some “reason” for the halakha. (There are plenty of others that are much less complimentary, some along the lines of “mama’s baby, papa’s maybe.” They are equally irrelevant to the immediate discussion.)

    Comment by Becca — July 24, 2005 @ 12:49 am

  10. Becca, is there anything I write that doesn’t upset you in some fashion or another? Whether I am, unwittingly, writing something that insults you or, wittingly or unwittingly, writing something that compliments you, you seem to get upset. Please stop taking everything so personally so we can have a reasonable discussion about important matters. And remember, you’re the one who said you had respect for halacha and that it was important to you. By definition that entails respect for the only stream of Judaism in which halacha rules the day. That happens to be Orthodoxy. For purposes of a discussion on halacha, I necessarily have to treat it with this regard. If you want to discuss the relative merits of disregarding halacha and Jewish traditions (I agree halacha is different from minhag, etc.), whether disregarding it makes any sense or has actually been the root of the weakening of the Jewish community, we can also have that discussion.

    BTW, I don’t belong to a “movement”. Torah-observance was the standard off of which the Reform Movement broke in the late 1700s/early 1800s. All other movements, Conservative, Reconstructionist, etc. broke off after that from one another. Being the majority doesn’t make you morally correct.

    …and please speak only for yourself and stop telling me how others will react to me. I’ve been only respectful on this blog (this those few exceptions for which I have apologized). Let others reading this blog judge for themselves who has the better, more reasoned arguments. You might just be surprised at the results.

    Comment by Marc J. — July 25, 2005 @ 10:31 am

  11. It is true that the “reason” for the halacha is not necessarily related to a woman setting the tone for the home, but it is the “result” of the halacha being this way (many would say an intended result). The reason for the halacha is beyond our scope.

    Comment by Marc J. — July 25, 2005 @ 2:04 pm

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