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Rosner's Guest
Shmuel Rosner, Chief U.S. Correspondent Back to Rosner's Domain Biography | Email me
Posted: March 30, 2008

Rosner's Guest: Paul Golin

Paul Golin is the Associate Executive Director for the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to "foster the creation of scores of Jewish outreach programs from coast to coast".

He previously served as JOI's Director of Communications and Strategic Planning. He is a frequent writer and speaker on Jewish outreach and has authored the report The Coming Majority: Suggested Action On Intermarried Households.

We will be discussing this issue of intermarriage and outreach, on which a series of new studies is now available. Readers can send questions to rosnersdomain@haaretz.co.il.

Dear Paul,

Two new studies found a correlation between Jewish officiation at weddings of interfaith couples, and the chances that these couples will be raising their children as Jewish. Three questions:

1. Do you understand why many rabbis still refrain from marrying interfaith couples?
2. Do you want it to change? And, do you see such change as a priority?

3. If so, how will you convince rabbis to change their minds?

Best

Rosner


Hi Shmuel,

It's not just 'many' but most rabbis who won't marry interfaith couples, and it's fairly understandable why not. The overwhelming majority of rabbis live both their personal and professional lives according to halacha (Jewish law), and intermarriage breaks with Jewish law. I would no more ask an Orthodox rabbi to officiate at my intermarriage than I would ask him to dine with me at Red Lobster. The reasoning, however, gets more complicated as you move into the more liberal streams of Judaism where not all rabbis measure their actions solely by halacha.

At the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we advocate for all rabbis to see themselves within a "Big Tent Judaism," where there is still room for Jews who intermarry even if it may not be in their own particular corner of the tent. Therefore, we strongly recommend that rabbis who don't officiate make personal referrals to rabbis who do. That to us is the highest priority.

What I found most fascinating about Arnold Dashefsky's excellent "Intermarriage and Jewish Journeys" study was that, of couples who were rejected when asking a rabbi to officiate, 91% of Jewish spouses and 80% of non-Jewish spouses were "somewhat" or "very" upset, yet only 33% and 39% respectively felt that "the rabbi was not sensitive in explaining the reasoning for the refusal". If I'm reading that correctly, it means more than half the couples got sensitive answers as to why the rabbi would not officiate yet still came away upset.

The policy recommendations for rabbis at the end of that report did not include "make referrals," which I would bounce to the top of the list. If rabbis can start by providing the actual information the couple is looking for - a rabbi that will marry them - it turns a "no" into a "yes and". Delivered with warmth, kindness, and perhaps an offer like a free year of synagogue membership to all newly-married couples, it may open a relationship with that couple even if the wedding is officiated by someone else.

It remains fairly difficult for couples to find rabbis who officiate at intermarriages, and in many communities there simply aren't any. The new studies coming out may help change the minds of some rabbis - if their not officiating had been based on reasons other than halacha like "Jewish continuity" - by strongly challenging the notion that all intermarriages are bad for the Jewish community.

Still, I doubt there will be an immediate sea change in the number of rabbis who officiate at intermarriages. Evaluating each couple by a set of criteria to determine if a Jewish home will emerge can become a lot more work than simply saying no to all of them. The Conservative movement won't even allow rabbis to consider it, which is difficult for me as a layperson to understand when it seems that they do allow autonomy on whether or not to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies. In the Reform movement, we estimate that only about a third of rabbis will officiate. Rabbis that change their minds seem to be in the field for many years, while those coming out of seminary (in all the movements) seem more to the right than their predecessors. Overall, this speaks to a challenge for the non-Orthodox community; we want our religious leaders to be more "religious" than us, yet we also want flexibility on issues like officiation.

To me, the big news from the recent crop of reports is the growing acceptance of a more nuanced view of intermarriage. Not all intermarriage is the same. Not all intermarriages lead to the end of Jewish continuity. Many intermarried families look a whole lot like in-married families. These are things we at JOI have been saying for the past two decades. Perhaps people need "the numbers" to really believe what they can simply see by looking around their own Seder tables: that there are as many if not more non-Jews "marrying in" as Jews "marrying out." It may or may not change rabbis' minds about officiation, but I hope it will allow us as a community to move forward in fully welcoming those intermarried families who would join us.

Thanks,
Paul

Dear Paul,

And how do you read the fact that most of these couples, while raising their children Jewish, also keep Christmas trees at home? Does this make them less Jewish, a new type of Jewish, just as Jewish - what does it mean?

Best

Rosner



Hi Shmuel,

First, let's be upfront in agreeing that there's nothing Jewish about a Christmas tree. At the same time, let's also acknowledge that there's nothing religiously Christian about it either. (In fact, my devoutly Christian friend refuses to have one because she considers it so pagan!) So I'm not sure how indicative it is of anything, in-and-of itself.

When you speak of those intermarried families raising Jewish children, many times the Christmas tree is a way of "helping daddy celebrate his holiday." I think from a very young age, children can understand "I'm Jewish, mommy's Jewish, daddy's not Jewish." There are many reasons why intermarried families that create Jewish households may still maintain this particular tradition -- in some cases because the Jewish spouse enjoys it so much.

Can it sometimes cause confusion? Of course. I recently heard from one young woman who grew up in an interfaith home and now swears she will only date Jewish men because she wants to avoid the confusion she felt growing up. And yet here she is, a strongly identified Jew nonetheless. Others may have reactions that pull them away from Judaism.

But as with almost every question about intermarriage, what we're really talking about are much larger issues. How can I be "less Jewish" than you? How are we measuring Jewishness in the first place? One of the most divisive statements in the Jewish world is "you're not Jewish enough" - not between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, but within the non-Orthodox world.

If an intermarried family has a Christmas tree but belongs to a synagogue and is raising their children Jewish, are they "less Jewish" than an in-married family that forgoes their children's Jewish education altogether?

These intermarried families are on a "Jewish journey," just as we all are. Social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz's groundbreaking work suggests that most Jews change their level of Jewish identity over time, and we have long known that most Jewish families come in and out of involvement with the organized Jewish community over time as well.

Is the Jewish community saying to these intermarried families: "Come as you are, because we have something great we want to share with you"? Or are we saying, "First lose the Christmas tree so you look more like us." I'd point to Chabad as an example of the success the entire community can have with more of a "come as you are" attitude.

Thanks,
Paul

Dear Mr. Golin,

Your comments regarding interfaith couples seem so positive that I wonder: don't you see any downside or danger in this trend?

Thank you

Yaakov B.
Jerusalem


Hi Yaakov,

Great question! I have to be an optimist about the Jewish potential of intermarried families if I'm to do the work of outreach. There are three reasons why I do this work: (1) I have a personal connection to the issue, (2) I believe the Jewish community has a moral imperative to welcome people in rather than push people away, and (3) I'd like to help more people find value and meaning in the Jewish community. We can discuss "downsides" on all three levels.

On the personal level, if raising Jewish children is of primary concern, then it is generally easier for two Jewish parents to raise Jewish kids than for just one Jewish parent. The point of our advocacy is to show that while it's more of a challenge for intermarried families, it's not impossible; in fact, it happens a lot. We'd like to help it happen more.

On the communal level, the supposed downsides have been promulgated constantly for the past two decades. In the 1990s, certain opponents of outreach suggested that welcoming the intermarried would "dilute" Judaism. We don't hear that anymore -- perhaps because the Reform movement has demonstrated how to both embraced large numbers of intermarried households while also moving toward more Jewish ritual practice and observance than ever before.

Another supposed downside was that once we accept intermarriage as "normative," it will encourage more young people to intermarry. This is like the argument that if we teach safe sex to teens it will encourage them to have sex! It's a distortion of cause-and-effect. Teens have sex because they're teens, and American Jews intermarry because they're American. The recent Pew Study on religion in America shows that Jews are just like everybody else in that regard.

We should welcome the intermarried because it's the right thing to do. If we excommunicated Jews for breaking halacha, there'd be nobody left, even among the 15% who actually aspire to keep all the mitzvot (commandments). And as for the non-Jewish spouses, they are the primary audience for us to practice "welcoming the stranger," the mitzvah repeated most often in the Torah. If there's a downside, it's that we need to dedicate communal resources toward things like adult education and professional training. But the resources are there, they just haven't been utilized wisely or widely enough. Because when they are, like the 1% of Boston Federation's budget dedicated to outreach (the highest percent in the country), it seems to produce results.

Finally, there's the demographic argument. Common wisdom suggests that intermarriage is contributing to a decline in the number of American Jews. While that may have been true in the past (and it's debatable), our past does not dictate our future. The recent Boston community study was the first time we've seen in writing that intermarriage contributed to the growth of the Jewish community, because 60% raise their kids Jewish (and anything above 50% equals growth). While that should be our goal everywhere and not just Boston, I really don't think it's about the numbers at all. We've always been a tiny minority, yet we've survived. Size is not a good enough reason to reach out to newcomers; it's about meaning and values.

The panic I sometimes hear from the Jewish community about our future simply doesn't jibe with my experience of Jewish life in America today, and I don't believe it's helpful in attracting newcomers. Nobody wants to board a sinking ship -- or a ship that the passengers think is sinking even if it's not. That's why I try to remain optimistic about the Jewish future rather than accept any downsides to outreach as permanent obstacles.

Thanks,
Paul

Dear Mr. Golin,

It what ways do you think intermarried couples will be agents of change within the Jewish community - and what changes do you expect the community to go through because of the growing number of none-Jewish members in the community.

For example: will this change the way the American community communicates with the Israeli one (in which you can barely find none-Jews)?

Thank you

Noam


Hi Noam,

Excellent question. As I said earlier, it's very difficult to attribute "cause" and "effect" specifically to intermarriage when there are so many larger trends impacting upon American Jewry. But one thing some people bemoan is a loss of Jewish "ethnicity" and may attribute that to high rates of intermarriage. Of course "ethnicity" means different things to different people but I think much of that loss (or change) was happening anyway and if intermarriage is contributing, it's only serving to speed up the inevitable.

For example, it seems that every Jew who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s holds fond memories of spreading chicken fat ("shmaltz") on bread and eating it as a sandwich. When they tell that to Jews in my generation and younger, we find it positively revolting. If shmaltz was ever an indicator of ethnic Judaism, it was doomed -- with or without intermarriage. At the other extreme, bagels are so mainstream now, there's nothing Jewish about eating one. Ethnic food alone was never going to keep us together as a people.

That said, I think a lot of folks use the phrase "ethnically Jewish" as a kind of shorthand for the entire Ashkenazi-American experience, and believe there's a particular way to "look Jewish" or "act Jewish". This has always been an incomplete picture because not all Jews trace their ancestry through the Pale of Settlement. But the feeling is real, and I won't deny that I have "ethnic pride" about being Jewish. This ethnic identity may be particularly important to the many completely-secular Jews in America, and helps explain why some may feel upset when their children intermarry even though they themselves haven't participated in any Jewish activities in years -- because their grandchildren may not "look Jewish" like them and will have dual-ethnicities.

So one major trend that intermarriage is accelerating is that to "feel Jewish" in America, you actually have to DO something Jewish. And that's one explanation behind the remarkable statistics from the recent study of intermarried families in Boston, which found that "intermarried parents raising their children as Jews are the most likely to believe strongly that being Jewish involves celebrating Jewish holidays (86 percent). This is higher than that reported by in-married [Reform and Conservative] families, where approximately 60 percent report similar results."

In other words, intermarried families don't have the luxury of "just being" Jewish. That's also why intermarried families raising Jewish kids in Boston light Shabbat candles more often than their in-married Reform AND Conservative neighbors. That is a truly stunning finding. This suggests that Jews in those households are observing Shabbat more often because they intermarried than if they had in-married! And we at JOI see this play out all the time because we operate The Mothers Circle (www.TheMothersCircle.org), a program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children, and it's clear that in most cases they are the driving forces of Judaism in their households, not their Jewish spouses.

Intermarriage pushes the American Jewish community to confront the big questions: what does it mean to be Jewish? How do we express our Judaism? Who is a Jew? It's good to grapple with tough questions; that's what Jews do. We will have a stronger community if we can provide compelling answers to those big questions.

Those same big questions are being confronted in Israel as well, even though you say you can barely find a non-Jew in the Israeli Jewish community. Who is a Jew in Israel? According to the government, not the thousands of patrilineal Russian immigrants who are eligible to die for their new country but not to be buried in Jewish cemeteries there. While Israel is not our focus at JOI, our friends at the Half-Jewish Network (www.half-jewish.net) and the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families (http://www.mixedfamilies.rustreet.com/english/index.php) have been advocating vocally for better treatment of the adult children of intermarriage by the religious authorities in Israel. I would also add that there are much larger challenges in the way the Israeli and American Jewish communities currently relate (or don't), far beyond the issues of intermarriage.

Thanks,
Paul

Dear Paul,

You've raised great questions, but did not give us your answer. So - "what does it mean to be Jewish? How do we express our Judaism?"

Thank you for this dialogue,

Rosner


Hi Shmuel,

I believe it's one of our community's greatest strengths that if you asked those same questions to 100 Jews, you would get 100 different answers - or 150 if the ratio of "two Jews, three opinions" holds true.

Several years ago I took a 30-session weekly course in New York City called Derekh Torah, which is primarily for interfaith couples and potential Jews-by-choice to learn more about Judaism. In one session, the instructor asked us to stand up and spread out in a line based on our belief in God. One end of the line was for those who believe 100% in the God of the Bible, the God who watches over your every move. The other end of the line was for anyone who was 100% sure there is no God. After finding our spots and looking around, it became quickly apparent that the Jews in the class were spread fairly evenly from one end to the other. The non-Jews in the class seemed amazed by this diversity of belief.

Most Christians who no longer believe in Jesus as messiah eventually stop calling themselves "Christian". In the Jewish community, we simply create a new denomination that denies the centrality of God to Judaism (Secular Humanistic Judaism), and go on "wrestling with God" all the same. To me, it's that "wrestling" - with God, with Torah, with Israel (the country and the Jewish people) - that is the essence of Judaism. How we express that essence is going to be different for each Jew, and I can only answer for myself. But I think that what comes out of that wrestling, in general, has been a boon not just for the Jewish people but for the world at large over the millennia.

My own personal answer for what it means to be Jewish leans liberal (just in case that wasn't obvious from all my prior answers). Fighting for social justice and working to repair the world speaks to me. I also enjoy the intellectual grappling with the text through contemporary and innovative commentaries. You don't have to be a religious Jew to find meaning for your own life within the tradition. For example, I love that Judaism requires a very specific percentage of your income to go to charity, and I try to use that as a personal benchmark. There are endless opportunities to draw from our tradition, regardless of where we fall on the spectrum of ritual practice or denomination. There is also the warmth of being part of a community - once you're actually on the inside.

My primary expression of Jewish identity (based on hours-per-week) is in working for the Jewish community. Before coming to JOI, I was blessed to work in an organization presided by Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, the "radical" modern-Orthodox thinker, and he taught me more than he could possibly imagine in our few brief interactions. His idea of Jews taking on a "voluntary covenant" in the wake of the Holocaust impacted on me greatly; it's a wonderful example of a brilliant mind and devout Jew wrestling with God. Ultimately, though, most Jews are not volunteering to take up the full covenantal relationship with God at all. So I see it a little differently.

Today what we have is a "selective covenant," where many Jews accept only those aspects that are meaningful and valuable to their lives. I know this is not the "right way" according to Orthodoxy, but it's the reality for most of us in the non-Orthodox world.

If the work of outreach is to help others find for themselves what it means to be Jewish (or to be part of a Jewish household), let's offer the full buffet of Jewish religious, cultural and communal offerings, with the understanding that people might select only one thing to begin, and that's okay. If it enriches their lives, they'll come back for second and third helpings. Soon they'll be well on their own Jewish journey toward answering those big questions for themselves.

Thanks so much for having me as your guest.

Paul

  1.   Cite Talmud 1st Where God Replaced Priests with Rabbis 02:58  |  John Isenhower 31/03/08
  2.   Marriage in Israel and Priests??-John I. 11:34  |  Meir gush Etzion 31/03/08
  3.   Rights versus responsibilities 11:40  |  Joseph 31/03/08
  4.   What of the next generation? 11:46  |  Joe 31/03/08
  5.   #1 - John Isenhower 19:01  |  MichaelF 31/03/08
  6.   Refer to rabbis who will perform intermarraige 19:04  |  MichaelF 31/03/08
  7.   typical holier than thou responses 19:19  |  Mike Schoenfeld 31/03/08
  8.   After seeing Natalie Hershlag & Orlando Bloom 22:44  |  Simeon ben Jacob 31/03/08
  9.   I AM HOLIER THAN THOU 22:49  |  GOD 31/03/08
  10.   To #7 00:08  |  Yechiel the Shrink 01/04/08
  11.   interfaith marriage 01:04  |  suzanne 01/04/08
  12.   rabbis who don`t officiate make personal referrals to rabbis 01:20  |  Leonid Zaslavsky 01/04/08
  13.   Wake Up - Establich Independence Now! 05:24  |  JJ Administration 01/04/08
  14.   lobster 06:54  |  Rob of melbourne 01/04/08
  15.   to # ten ??? 12:29  |  rob of Melbourne 01/04/08
  16.   If a couples intent was to "marry out", why would they seek a 15:21  |  Virginia 01/04/08
  17.   Insert the word "not" after halacha 15:34  |  Virginia 01/04/08
  18.   And to further clarify my statement... 16:07  |  Virginia 01/04/08
  19.   Paul is absolutely right on his last response! re: the Christmas 16:47  |  Virginia 01/04/08
  20.   I am You. You are Me. We are 1. WE are G`d! 17:18  |  YBF 01/04/08
  21.   What is Jew? 18:05  |  Ephraim 01/04/08
  22.   Leveticus is a part of it 18:39  |  Robert/Montreal 01/04/08
  23.   YBF why are ME Politics affiliated to this? 18:42  |  Robert/Montreal 01/04/08
  24.   Its all Bull - most Diaspora seculars will vanish in a generation 19:13  |  Ronny 01/04/08
  25.   Ronny 19:27  |  Ephraim 01/04/08
  26.   So If I Like Peanut Butter,...You Must Love Roller Skates 21:38  |  David 01/04/08
  27.   To #7 - In good faith 23:40  |  Moises 01/04/08
  28.   Why doesnt athiesm bother the rabbis? 00:37  |  Tania 02/04/08
  29.   morraly wrong to ask a rabbi this 00:53  |  zionist forever 02/04/08
  30.   iNTERFAITH MARRIAGES 05:01  |  KATHERINE pRIETO 02/04/08
  31.   Right On Tania! Not clever t`all. 05:29  |  Really 02/04/08
  32.   ...and that is why Orthodox Rabbis react so strongly to this sham 18:07  |  common sense 02/04/08
  33.   #30 Kathererin Honey 18:40  |  Yechiel 02/04/08
  34.   As a Lesbian Reform Rabbi I am Disgusted 01:03  |  Mary Cohen 03/04/08
  35.   paul golin 20:02  |  jack l 03/04/08
  36.   Israeli Children of Intermarriage Need Support 23:05  |  Robin Margolis 03/04/08
  37.   I thought Jewish was a religion 01:09  |  JMK 04/04/08
  38.   Jews and Navajos 03:21  |  Jack 04/04/08
  39.   Intermarriages 05:35  |  Gershon Ron 04/04/08
  40.   #28 Tania and Messianic Judaism 06:08  |  Gil62 04/04/08
  41.   I Want To Know Something 07:16  |  Yosemite 04/04/08
  42.   Yes Virginia There Is A Santa Claus 08:51  |  Yosemite 04/04/08
  43.   Ephraim; Your children aren`t Jewish but you already knew that. 11:00  |  anti-intermarriage 04/04/08
  44.   Lighting Candles is the Standard? 15:18  |  Shachar 04/04/08
  45.   Why people intermarry: 22:16  |  Daniel al` Axel 04/04/08
  46.   Hi Yosemite! I just knew it! a/k/a the Spirit of Giving. 04:22  |  Virginia 05/04/08
  47.   # 33 Yechiel, you seem to know the answer to my question 16-17 05:09  |  Virginia 05/04/08
  48.   To "anti-intermarriage" 08:05  |  Alain 05/04/08
  49.   Jews are a tribe first 13:50  |  B`Galil 05/04/08
  50.   # 49 B`Galil, So the "Tribe" is as a community? Or an extended 15:48  |  family?/Virginia 05/04/08
  51.   Where are exactly, the measuring lines? 16:28  |  Virginia 05/04/08
  52.   If # 50 is true, seems to me the Laws of Sexual impurity say just 16:48  |  Virginia 05/04/08
  53.   I don`t believe God wants those He has created to "rival" for His 16:59  |  Love. He wants 05/04/08
  54.   It`s in the DNA 19:19  |  David 05/04/08
  55.   Christmas Tree 21:31  |  Richard Sutcliffe 05/04/08
  56.   If it is strickly a DNA thing, no such thing as a "convert". 22:10  |  The Word is out 05/04/08
  57.   Richard, I may agree upon the origins, but not the conquering 22:30  |  Spirit/Virginia 05/04/08
  58.   # 56 cont. So, if the Word of God has come to me AND 22:44  |  Virginia 05/04/08
  59.   If I Am His, and you cannot accept that; Should my concern be for 23:10  |  me or for you? 05/04/08
  60.   Who`s a Jew 00:27  |  Beitcafe 06/04/08
  61.   I`m Thinking We Should Somehow Scoot Around... 01:09  |  Yosemite 06/04/08
  62.   If You Accept That Christian Zionism Blurb... 01:25  |  Yosemite 06/04/08
  63.   Intermarriages 01:55  |  GEMMA MENIGATTI 06/04/08
  64.   # 61 Yosemite, I Love you. And I`m with you! This matters most. 02:10  |  Virginia 06/04/08
  65.   I am a Jew 04:10  |  Doreen 06/04/08
  66.   I am a Jew 04:10  |  Doreen 06/04/08
  67.   Virginia 04:19  |  Yosemite 06/04/08
  68.   Ever been to "A Night To Honor Israel"? The unity in worship is 06:23  |  Awesome! Virginia 06/04/08
  69.   Spirit 09:44  |  Richard 06/04/08
  70.   69, Me too Richard. The errors of relacement theology are 12:44  |  Virginia 06/04/08
  71.   As a Lesbian Reform Rabbi I am Disgusted 14:34  |  nosmo29 06/04/08
  72.   Sometimes people will throw stuff like "mary" has just to get 15:48  |  a reaction, having 06/04/08
  73.   as a lesbian rabbi... 18:55  |  Uri Lam 06/04/08
  74.   Anti-Reform or not, if I were the one posting as Mary Cohen, 19:56  |  I`d be on my knees!! 06/04/08
Domain's Guest
Paul Golin
Associate Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute on interfaith couples and the American Jewish community. Readers can send questions
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