Rabbi reverses interfaith marriage policy

It’s not often that a rabbi’s High Holy Days sermon is interrupted by a standing ovation. But that is what happened — twice — when Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, dedicated his sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah to explaining why he was changing a long-held position and would from now on officiate at interfaith weddings.

“It’s almost like it opened the dam and the waters are just flowing,” Rosove said, describing the reaction both that day and in the week following. “People are crying at synagogue and at the nursery and day schools. I’m getting e-mail after e-mail of gratitude. It’s quite remarkable — a phenomenon I did not expect.”

Rosove recounted in his sermon a long process of decision-making that ultimately led him to go with his intuition.

“I want to say to every interfaith couple who may want to be married by me under the chuppah with the intentions I have noted, ‘Yes, come in. Judaism and this community at Temple Israel want to elevate your sense of belonging here in a new and deeper way. We want to be able to love you, your spouse and your children, and for you all to be able to love us and give to us of your hearts and souls as you desire,’ ” Rosove told the 1,000 or so people gathered in the main sanctuary of the Hollywood Boulevard Reform congregation.

The Reform movement allows rabbis to make their own choice as to whether they will officiate at mixed-faith marriages. About 50 percent of marriages involving a Jew are now intermarriages, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Later surveys have reported that around 25 percent of children in intermarried families are raised as Jews, compared with about 98 percent of children raised in all-Jewish families. 

At Temple Israel, about a third of the 1,000 member units are mixed-faith families, and Rosove estimates about 175 members are not Jewish. The temple has worked to embrace non-Jewish members and mixed families.

In his 25-minute sermon, Rosove explained how he has always struggled with declining to officiate at the weddings of clearly loving couples — even his own family members — when one member isn’t Jewish. That decision has become more difficult recently, when the people he is saying no to are people he’s known their whole lives — he was there for the baby naming, the bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation and family funerals.

“My ‘policy’ of officiating only when both partners were Jewish was based upon voices from Judaic texts and tradition, teachers and mentors who taught me that I was ordained a rabbi to help fulfill three vital purposes: to preserve the integrity of the Jewish covenantal relationship with God, the viability of the Jewish family, and the survival and continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. Those voices have sounded inside my head for decades along with the voice that commanded, ‘Thou shalt not officiate at an intermarriage ceremony!’ ” he said.

Rosove said he now believes he can fulfill those purposes in an increasingly diverse Jewish world by making Judaism a central component from the moment two people become a family.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that based upon the new reality in which we find ourselves and the fact that many intermarried families are seemingly successful in raising their children as Jews here at Temple Israel, I now believe that I can better serve the Jewish people by officiating at their weddings, and that it’s time for me to change my policy,” he said. 

Rosove placed some conditions on the weddings he will preside over. The couple must be connected to the synagogue and must be jointly committed to creating a Jewish home and to providing children with a Jewish education. The non-Jewish partner may not be active in any other religion, and Rosove will not co-officiate with clergy from another religion.

Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), says many rabbis in their 50s and 60s have recently changed their position on intermarriage. 

The Reform movement itself has moved to a more neutral position in recent years. Officially, the last resolution on the books is from 1973, and it opposes rabbinic officiation at mixed marriages, stating that interfaith marriage is contrary to Jewish tradition. It also recognizes that each rabbi will make his or her own decision. But in the last several years, the movement opted not to introduce any new resolutions on the topic.

“It’s not a yes or no, up or down question. It’s far more nuanced. The approach we are taking at CCAR is that our role is to help the rabbis process the question in a way that works best for him or her,” Fox said.

From 2008 to 2010, a task force worked to produce materials that offer the rabbis information and resources when making this decision and when counseling couples. Fox estimates that Reform rabbis nationally are split evenly on whether they officiate at interfaith weddings.

Rabbi Laura Geller at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills says she didn’t officiate at interfaith weddings for the first 30 years of her rabbinate, but her experience with highly committed, mixed-faith families caused her to change her mind.

“I came to understand that my role as a rabbi is to facilitate the creation of Jewish families, not Jewish marriages. I have discovered since that decision that when a rabbi takes planning a wedding very seriously, spending a lot of time with a couple, it becomes an opportunity to open a door that really can deepen a commitment to create a Jewish home,” she said.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, also a rabbi at Temple Israel, said that she struggles with this issue, and that she believes a couple can’t really know whether they are committing to a Jewish life when they are getting married, but will know later, when they join a synagogue or enroll kids at school. At that point, when they show up at temple, she is ready to fully embrace them, she said. But she is not willing to perform an intermarriage and gamble on a promise.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple said he does not officiate at interfaith weddings, and he believes it is possible to say no in a way that people feel respected. 

He wonders whether “asking a non-Jew to stand under a chuppah, break a glass, utter traditional blessings, etc., is as disrespectful to the non-Jew and Judaism as asking a Jew to take communion in a church is to the Jew and Christianity,” Leder wrote in an e-mail. 

Rosove said he has already scheduled several weddings since the sermon. One young man who grew up in the synagogue had called him over the summer, and he had already met with the couple and is satisfied that they will raise a Jewish family. Another couple, married 15 years, asked him to perform a recommitment ceremony. 

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the more welcoming atmosphere would lead more of the non-Jewish members of Temple Israel to convert. 

Longtime Temple Israel member Darcy Vebber converted there in 1999, some 15 years after she was married. She was asked to lead a task force on the role of non-Jewish members in the congregation about 10 years ago, but the topic of weddings wasn’t even on the table, because the group knew Rosove’s policy. She says she was stunned and delighted by the rabbi’s change of heart.

“A friend of mine, for whom this is a pressing issue, feels a sense of relief, I guess in the same way that you would when any family member who you love fully accepts you,” Vebber said.

The dreadful ‘D’ words

Divorce, dissolution, divestment: These are words that spell the end of a relationship and of what might have been — through time and patience — a meaningful and inspiring marriage.

We know how often this happens to people we know, and so it is happening at this moment to the State of Israel. Like meddling in-laws, we, the world community, sit in the family room voicing our interests in the couple’s future, yet the minute we sense marital discord, we rush for the exit or take sides and fan the flames.

Israel has a population of 7.2 million — 76 percent Jews, 20 percent Arabs and 4 percent immigrant workers. The Israeli-Arab citizenry breaks down as 82 percent Muslims, 9 percent Christian and 9 percent Druze. All these groups live together in an intricate array of diverse ancestry, professional ties and domestic dependence. Each citizen has a vote in the functioning democracy that is the State of Israel, and by extension a voice at the family table of the Knesset.

The entire world debates how to intervene in this contentious and vociferous marriage, whose every dispute we mostly hear second-hand from the world media. Do we continue to support Israel, even though we know there are serious domestic disputes and inequities? Should we divest from, abandon, a world leader in high-tech, biotech, medical and environmental enterprises that benefit the world? In our desire to punish the couple, or one partner, do we ultimately punish ourselves?

These were some of the questions we sought answers to when we joined the Los Angeles Religious Leaders Delegation in an interfaith mission to Rome, the Vatican, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in January 2008, a group of Jews, Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians and a Muslim.

Israeli society is far more complex than we had envisaged. With the exception of the Druze and Bedouins, the Christian and Muslim Arab citizens of Israel identify themselves as Palestinian by nationality and Israeli by citizenship. Nowhere is this glass partition more apparent than in Jerusalem, where we experienced the psychological barrier between Arabs and Jews. Although many Israeli-Arabs earn more than their counterparts in other Middle Eastern countries, their wages and the social services they receive in Israel are not on par with Israeli Jews. This Israeli-Arab minority needs to be nurtured, ensured equal social status and accorded full civil rights and municipal services.

According to Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, who covers the West Bank and Gaza for various publications and with whom we met, the employment discrepancy can be attributed to two factors: a lower level of education in the Arab work force, resulting in skills more suited to lower paying jobs, and anti-Arab employment discrimination, at all levels of business sectors. Toameh — respected by both Israelis and Palestinians — outlined proposed solutions to the problem, noting that the Israeli government is prioritizing educational reform in the Arab sector, and making genuine efforts to increase Arab employment in higher-paid professions.

As a Christian and a Muslim, who ourselves would be minorities in Israeli society, we believe our most constructive role should be to support responsible investment in Israel, not punishment through divestment actions destined to backfire.

Rather than divestment, we support investment — financial and otherwise — in Israeli enterprises that address social and economic inequalities, enable joint business enterprises, increase employment among the Arab population, and offer high-quality social services to underprivileged and minority citizens. Such enterprises are seeding the ground for a flourishing, mutually beneficial society for Israelis and Palestinians.

For example, at Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin School, at-risk students from lower socioeconomic level Jewish and Arab families and children of immigrant workers harmoniously coexist in a project partially funded by Cisco Systems. Children find a safe haven at Bialik-Rogozin, and receive a quality kindergarden through 12th-grade education. At Mishkenot Ruth Daniel Multicultural Center in Jaffa, Jewish and Arab teenagers interact socially and engage in a variety of social justice projects together, many of which benefit Palestinians in the West Bank.

We also came to understand how successive corrupt Palestinian leaderships have fed the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in the territories. Any wishful thinking that divestment will lead to military calm along Israeli-Palestinian borders is strategically flawed. The present war of attrition between Israel and self-governing Gaza has been instigated and sustained by the extremist Hamas leadership whose charter calling for the eradication of Israel harms the very people it claims to serve, malnourishing the nascent Palestinian state which otherwise has the support of virtually the entire international community.

On the occasion of Israel’s 60th birthday, we believe people of good will should turn away from the destructive D words of Divorce, Dissolution and Divestment, and work instead for peace, security and happiness for both Israelis and Palestinians. We believe in supporting the prosperous marriage that can result from targeted investment and economic partnerships between the respective states, and between their many peoples.

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson oversees 390 United Methodist Congregations in Southern California, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan. Dr. Nur Amersi is the executive director of the Afghanistan World Foundation.

Right the Wrongs

Last January, I breathed a sigh of relief. The new domestic partnership law went into effect in the state of California, giving senior citizen and same-gender couples a range of state rights nearly equal to the rights given married couples in California.

In so doing, California became second only to Massachusetts in seeking to extend the civil rights of its residents, and many members of the Los Angeles Jewish community, myself included, knew we finally had the legal protections in place that are so critically important to the security of our families.

Then, last week, the California attorney general approved petition language for a ballot measure that would amend the California Constitution to repeal and permanently ban those vital new protections. The brief and frightening summary of the proposed measure, which will easily garner the nearly 1 million signatures required to put it on the ballot in 2006, calls to amend:

“The California Constitution to provide that only marriage between one man and one woman is valid or recognized in California, whether contracted in this state or elsewhere. Voids and restricts registered domestic partner rights and obligations, for certain same-sex and heterosexual couples, in areas such as: ownership and transfer of property, inheritance, adoption, medical decisions, child custody and child support, health and death benefits, insurance benefits, hospital visitation, employment benefits, and recovery for wrongful death other tort remedies.”

In this week’s Torah portion, God and Moses modify the inheritance rights they had recently given to Zelophehad’s daughters — Mahla, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noa — who, having no brothers, petitioned successfully to inherit their father’s property (“And God said to Moses, ‘Zelophehad’s daughters speak right.'” Numbers 27:7).

This week, at the end of the Book of Numbers, the uncles of these women complain that if their brother’s daughters were to marry outside their tribe, then the tribe would lose the legacy that belongs to it.

This time Moses speaks for God, saying, “The tribe of the sons of Joseph speaks right,” and he amends the earlier law by requiring Zelophehad’s daughters to marry into the family of their father’s tribe. They do so, marrying their uncles’ sons, and in so doing ironically pass along their inheritance to the families who would have inherited it originally if the sisters had not spoken up.

Whatever the biblical base for it, most Jews these days don’t expect to enter arranged marriages. With interfaith marriage rates continuing to grow, fewer and fewer Jews are observing any Jewish constraints on their freedom to marry, and would be rightly outraged if any state or federal government tried to interfere with their legal and civil right to marry.

Even American Jews who favor Jewish marriage over interfaith would not likely deny any interfaith couple the civil right to marry. And yet, the people proposing or supporting this new constitutional amendment would make certain that thousands of their peers never have such rights and, moreover, would strip them of important civil rights already duly conferred by California law. Like the brothers of Zelophehad, they stand for their privilege, and willingly put restrictions on the lives of other people.

What motivates a drive to amend a constitution now dedicated to fairness and equality into one that recreates a true second-class citizenry? How do these proponents benefit? Just as race laws did in America, such proposals galvanize emotionally motivated and fear-based voters into a firm voter base for leaders with other economic and power agendas. We need only look at the long history of anti-Semitism to remind ourselves that we’ve seen all this before.

This last Torah portion in the Book of Numbers concerns itself largely with the establishment and maintenance of boundaries as the Israelites prepare to move into the land of Canaan after their 40 years in the wilderness. God-given geographic boundaries, inheritance rights, appointment (not election) of leaders, provision for the establishment of sanctuary cities (six cities are needed in order to protect the lives of people who kill unintentionally, lest they be killed by avengers) — all contribute to a rather rigid atmosphere.

For a people who has lived in the wilderness and moved 42 times in 40 years (Rashi on Numbers 33), knowing as they do that Moses — their leader for all 40 years — is about to die, we can perhaps understand the desire (even God feels it) to get everything firmly in place as the Israelites prepare for entry into the Promised Land. But in our day, cui bono — to whose advantage is it to deny or remove (or even propose removing) rights from certain citizens? In our day, what’s our excuse?

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

Mixed-Marriage Study Defies Logic

Since the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) confirmed the continuing high rate of intermarriage, it’s been quiet on the "outreach"vs. "in-reach" front. The Jewish In-Marriage Initiative is slowly becoming active.

No new money has been added to the paltry funding the Jewish community devotes to outreach to the intermarried. As policy advocates search for support for their positions among a dearth of social science, Sylvia Barack Fishman’s new study, "Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage," takes on inordinate significance.

Fishman’s main conclusions are based on a very limited sample: interviews of 43 mixed-married couples who said they were raising all of their children as Jews, and four focus groups, each with perhaps eight children of intermarried parents.

Any qualitative study raises interpretative issues. Which of the participants’ behaviors and understandings does the observer choose to emphasize or even mention? Although Fishman said that the personal stories of her subjects, along with her analysis, "now become texts themselves for a broader discussion," only glimpses and excerpts, not the underlying interview transcripts, are available for interpretation by others.

"Double or Nothing" is replete with comments suggesting that Fishman is not a neutral observer: At the lowest point, she even implies that outreach advocates are "Christianizing."

In a comparable debate, the Boston Globe recently reported that proponents of gay marriage were criticizing, as methodologically flawed and politically biased, social science research that purported to reveal significant differences between children raised in opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

My main concern is Fishman’s assertion that the vast majority of mixed-married families who say they are raising their children as Jews "incorporate Christian holiday festivities" into their lives, which makes them "religiously syncretic" — combining Judaism and Christianity — such that Jewish identity is not transmitted to their children, even though they say that these festivities have no religious significance to them.

This central conclusion is not supported by the research itself, is inconsistent with other available evidence and provides a wholly inadequate basis for the very dangerous policies it will be used to justify.

Twice, Fishman suggests that the participation of mixed-married families in Christian holiday festivities amounts to an affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. She equates having Christmas trees and Easter eggs in the home to "bringing the ideas [and] beliefs of the Christian church into Jewish households."

This defies logic. When mixed-married couples explicitly deny that their conduct has religious significance, as Fishman acknowledges that at least some of her subjects did "emphatically," and when their children say they experience these holidays in a secular, commercial, cultural, nonreligious way, how can their behavior amount to an affirmation of a religious belief?

Fishman’s conclusion is inconsistent with other available information. In liberal American Jewish communities, it is hard to miss mixed-married families whose behaviors look as — if not more — "Jewish" than the average Jew’s, with the added component of nonreligious Christmas and Easter celebrations. It is equally hard to miss the many young adult children of such families who strongly identify as Jewish.

Last year the InterfaithFamily.Com Network’s essay contest, "We’re Interfaith Families Connecting With Jewish Life," attracted 135 personal statements from such individuals. While contest entrants are not a representative sample, the quantity and consistency of their statements — all of which are publicly available for observers to draw their own conclusions — suggest a positive theory that mixed-married families’ participation in Christian holidays need not compromise the Jewish identity of their children.

Fishman clearly has moved beyond the traditional equation that Christmas is not Jewish, so anyone who has anything to do with Christmas is not Jewish. She recognizes the possibility that, short of conversion, a mixed-married family can be "unambiguously Jewish" — if, in her view, their participation in Christian holidays takes place only outside their own home and is accompanied with explicit statements that the holidays are the relatives’ and not "ours."

While that is an excellent approach for mixed-married families to take, the boundary of acceptable conduct could be drawn more broadly to include families who say that their participation, whether in their own home or not, does not have religious significance.

This is a high-stakes disagreement. My fear is that we will now hear Jewish leaders saying that the "latest research" supports two destructive policies: That mixed-married couples who are trying to raise their children as Jews shouldn’t bother, because they won’t succeed, and the Jewish community shouldn’t waste resources on outreach to mixed-married families, because the vast majority are not "really" raising their children as Jews.

My hope is that any responsible Jewish leader would insist on conclusive social science research on a scale far beyond "Double or Nothing" before writing off the new families of the half of all young Jews who are intermarrying, thereby alienating their Jewish parents and relatives as well.

Instead of arguing about whether mixed-married families raising their children as Jews should see a Christmas tree in their own home or only in the home of relatives, rejecting the former but not the latter, everyone’s focus should be on increasing the Jewish engagement of all liberal Jews — including those in interfaith relationships.

The real question about the transmission of Jewish identity in mixed-married families is not what they do around Christian holidays, but what they do the rest of the year. As one contest entrant said:

"I am not worried that the sight of Santa will turn [my daughter] into an instant Christian. I have faith in the power of Judaism as a religion and as a way of life. Assimilation happens because what is outside, over there, looks better than what is inside. You don’t guard against it by building a higher wall between you and the rest of the world. What you do is make sure the life you have is irresistibly worth leading."

Edmund Case is publisher of

Mixed Marriage, Mixed Message

"Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage" by Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis, $24.95)

"Sort of Jewish," "Jewish and something else," "might as well be Jewish" are some of the ways people describe their Jewish identity in Sylvia Barack Fishman’s significant new book probing the religious character of mixed-marriage households, "Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage."

One of her findings that may be widely discussed relates to households that mix Christian and Jewish customs: She finds data to support the "greatly diminished likelihood that children from these households will unambiguously identify as Jewish as adults," as she says in an interview from her office at Brandeis University. Fishman, a professor who directs the program in Contemporary Jewish Life and co-directs the Brandeis-Hadassah Institute, recognizes that people who condone the incorporation of those practices will not like her findings.

"Double or Nothing" is based on a study Fishman conducted, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. She analyzes data from 254 interviews, conducted between 1999 and 2000, with 68 mixed-married, 36 inmarried and 23 conversionary families in Denver, New Jersey, Atlanta and New England, along with focus groups with teens growing up in interfaith families.

Much previous research in this field has been quantitative studies and surveys. As she writes, this is "one of the first systematic qualitative studies of the full range of mixed-family types: Jewishly identified, two religions, secular or no formal religion, overtly Christian and principled nontheists."

The author of several books including "Jewish Life and American Culture" and "A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community," Fishman points to statistical studies showing that about half of all marriages involving a Jew have been marriages to non-Jews. But unlike those Jews who married non-Jews 50 years ago, those intermarrying today "do not necessarily have an agenda of leaving the Jewish community," she writes. And unlike earlier mixed marriages, in which it was usually the wife who was a Christian and she often converted, "very few of the non-Jews marrying Jewish men and women today convert into Judaism."

She asks, "Will the blessings of American openness cause Jewish culture to be virtually loved out of existence in 21st century America?"

Among the interrelated issues Fishman looked into was the process by which intermarried couples determine the religious character of their household, how they talk about it and negotiate, the personal meaning of their choices, how they thought about dating, the planning of the wedding, the impact of having children, children’s views of their parents religious decisions and how they construct their own identity and more.

The findings she cites as major include the notion that many mixed-marriage couples started talking about how they would deal with religious differences early on, as soon as their dating became serious. Before her study, she notes, most observers assumed these conversations took place much later. Another finding is that during the marriage, the Jewish spouse tends to be empathetic, guilt-ridden about depriving the Christian spouse of his or her practice.

"Sometimes the Jewish spouse might volunteer to bring Christian holidays into the Jewish household," she says.

Also, she points out that Jewish spouses and their families are often very "reticent or squeamish about pushing too hard toward conversion," and that not pushing too hard can be read as not-caring about the issue by the non-Jewish spouse.

"Many say that if they were asked, they might have considered it," she added.

Another aspect Fishman thinks of as groundbreaking is that many of the non-Jewish spouses talked about their attraction to Jewish culture and family life, and were drawn to the image of a Jewish home, full of warmth, passion about ideas, argument, everyone knowing each other’s business.

"One of the amusing things," she says, "is that social patterns that seem unattractive to the Jewish partner can seem attractive to Christians."

She finds that a triple-pronged approach can be effective in reinforcing Jewish life for both inmarried and intermarried families. The three prongs are formal and informal Jewish education over many years; the Jewish vitality of the home, with lots of Jewish connections and parents passionately involved in some aspect of Judaism, whether religious or cultural or Israel-related; and a Jewish peer group for kids, particularly teenagers.

"This model adds up to more than its parts," she says.

Interestingly, almost every person interviewed expressed the sentiment that he or she was not typical, but given the pattern of responses, the individuals interviewed had much in common with each other.

The title uses a gambling metaphor to highlight the question of whether intermarriage is, as some believe, a potential net gain, creating more "Jewish" households: If the children raised in these homes identified as Jews and went on to create Jewish homes of their own, the community would experience a population increase. Others see intermarriage as a diminishment of the community.

On the book jacket, a figure balances a die tenuously on the tip of his finger. As for her own opinion, Fishman hedges her bets: She asserts that when households follow the three-pronged model, the possibility of stable equilibrium exists.

"You’re gambling with the Jewish identity of children when you don’t have that model," she says.

Whether it’s double or nothing depends on "how we respond, whether the American Jewish community will be able to summon the communal will to meet this challenge" — to create connections for Jewish families to their own Jewish heritage.

The book intersperses comments from the respondents into the text, which makes for interesting, accessible reading and also humanizes these much-discussed issues. Fishman also shows how interfaith families are depicted in American literature, film and popular culture; she also looks at the issue in Jewish societies historically.

Are there policy implications?

"I believe very much in putting money and brilliant minds and outstanding talents to work in creating programming for teenagers and young adults. These are the critical, underserviced years," she says.

She’d like to see formal and informal programs provide positive peer group experiences: "It would make a difference. Nothing is going to prevent intermarriage because we live in an open society — and all of us are intensely grateful that we live in an open society."

"We can make a difference in the proportion of Jews who marry non-Jews." And, she adds, "We can give Jews the tools they need in order to create Jewishly vibrant households, regardless of who they marry."

In the end, she emphasizes the urgency of Jewish education and calls for excellence in offerings — for children, teens and adults. The author points to studies that show that mixed-married families who seek out Jewish education are looking for intellectual and experiential depth in their studies. She says that inmarried, conversionary and intermarried families all benefit from high-quality education — "one of the most effective strategies for transmitting knowledge of and attachment to Jewish civilizations and their heritage to the next generation of Jews"

In this age where intermarriage rates are so high, why does she care so much?

"I have found the Jewish way of life to be very beautiful and very sustaining as an individual, as a mother and grandmother. Judaism has been the rock of my life. We live in a culture where people worry about saving the whales. I think we should all be concerned with saving this beautiful and rich culture, not as a fossil but as a rich heritage."

About her own religious life, she explains that she grew up in religiously observant household in Sheboygan, Wis. She has always been observant and describes herself as modern Orthodox.

"I am fascinated and engaged by Jewish texts — all kinds of historical texts, ranging from biblical through rabbinical to modern Jewish literature," she says. "I’m also fascinated by Jewish people and am very fortunate to be involved with a profession that allows me to look at material that I find especially fascinating and engaging in a systematic and scholarly way."

She is now working on two new research projects and isn’t thinking yet about books. One study focuses on teen Jewish education, funded by the AviChai Foundation, and the other is on conversionary households, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

Married to It

Kim and Rob Cavallo had worked out a lot of the tough issues
that confront an interfaith family. But when she asked him to get rid of the
Christmas tree because it would confuse their two children, Rob, who was raised
in an Italian-Scottish Catholic home, pushed back. And he used a strategy he
knew would work.

“We went to the rabbi, and I said I would agree to do
anything the rabbi says,” Rob explained. “And I knew the rabbi would say I
could have the tree. I knew he would take the position that if I couldn’t be
who I truly am, that would destroy the marriage and the family.”

Rob was right.

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, the
Conservative rabbi who had counseled the family in the past and built up a trusting
relationship with them, told the Cavallos to keep the Christmas tree.

“Here I am sitting down with this family, trying to help
them initiate a new Jewish relationship for their family, and you can’t demand
this kind of give-it-all-to-me-now approach, because it’s just not fair,” Vogel
said. “If somebody like Rob is willing to build a Jewish home, you have to give
that time to evolve. So for that family, at that time — and that is a very
important distinction — in the evolution of their journey, I felt it was the
right place to begin.” 

Now the family actively celebrates Chanukah — they also
sleep in their sukkah and celebrate Shabbat every Friday night — and they share
Christmas with daddy.

Kim and Rob have come a long way since Kim showed up at Temple
Aliyah looking for a preschool six years ago and ended up in Vogel’s office,
moved to tears by a Judaism she was ready to reconnect with. With Vogel’s help,
Kim and Rob made compromises, with Rob agreeing to send the children to day
school, sometimes joining her at synagogue and even getting into the
philanthropic work that Kim took on at The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance
and Heschel West Day School.

“Rabbi Vogel was really supportive of us as a couple, not
just of me as the Jewish partner, and that was key in making it so my husband
felt super comfortable, not feeling like every time he turned around we were
taking something away from him,” Kim said. “We’ve been able to take baby steps
and incorporate Judaism into our lives, not have it take over and make it so
Rob doesn’t know where he stands and doesn’t feel comfortable in his own home.”

Not that it hasn’t been difficult.

“Marriage is a series of compromises, but I guess religion
seems so pure, and when you have to dissect it all the time, it loses a
little,” Kim said.

Last year Temple Aliyah honored Kim and Rob — who is a Grammy-winning
producer of such entertainers as Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, Fleetwood Mac and
Phil Collins — for their service to the wider Jewish community.

The fact that an intermarried couple was honored at a
Conservative shul is an indication of a newly surfacing willingness among a
growing number of rabbis — even traditional rabbis — to integrate intermarried
couples into Jewish life.

“Rather than tolerating them, we need to openly embrace
them,” Vogel said. “If we really want to help them create caring, committed
Jewish homes, then we have to actively welcome them.”

Roughly half of all American Jews who marry choose non-Jews,
a number that held relatively steady in both the 1990 and the 2001 National
Jewish Population Surveys. The vast majority of those families — two-thirds,
according to some numbers, a lot more according to others — will write Judaism
out of their lives. The children of intermarriages have only a 25 percent
chance of marrying another Jew.

“If nothing is done, you are dealing with the hemorrhaging
of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who has initiated an
aggressive new outreach program at the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom.

However, others fear the open embrace will send a message
that intermarriage is fine and that long-held Jewish norms will be left in

“We have a responsibility to educate and inspire [interfaith
couples] to try to raise a Jewish family,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive
vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “If you ignore them
or alienate them, you lose the real potential to impact their lives.

“At the same time,” he said, “I think one has to be careful
not to ignore the fact that the goal is to raise in-marriage, so policy has to
be designed along the lines of not creating the false impression that there is
no difference as to whether you in-marry or intermarry, because it could all be
fixed up anyway.”

Even within the Orthodox community, there are subtle shifts
in attitude.

While intermarriage is still condemned in no uncertain terms
— most Orthodox rabbis advise their congregants not to attend the mixed
marriages of immediate family members — only a small minority of Orthodox Jews
still follow the age-old custom of sitting shiva over children who intermarry.

“In terms of the statement made through intermarriage, it is
not the same act of rebellion it once was because we live in such an open
culture,” said Rabbi Asher Brander of the Westwood Kehilla, “so all the
accessories that used to go with intermarriage — like sitting shiva — I really
haven’t heard of that being done today.”

There is a recognition today, more than in the past, that
Jews who intermarry — even the growing number of strongly affiliated Jews who
intermarry — still want to keep Judaism as an integral part of their lives, and
if the non-Jewish spouse is willing to go along, the community is more willing
to embrace him or her.

What the Jewish community is facing then is a fluctuating
definition of success in the universe of Jewish marriage. Is the goal to bolster
Jewish identity to lower the rate of intermarriage? Is it to increase the rate
of conversion? And if a spouse doesn’t convert but agrees to raise the children
Jewish, is that too a success?

Even those who hold up prevention as the answer — pointing
to the fact that the more Jewish education a person has had, the less likely he
or she is to intermarry — acknowledge that even hugely successful efforts to
encourage in-marriage will still leave hundreds of thousands of interfaith
families who need to be tended to or lost.

Most in the community strive to uphold the Jewish-Jewish
marriage as the ideal while reaching out to the intermarrieds, but others say
those goals can be mutually exclusive.

 “When you state affirmatively that intermarriage is not a
good thing and should be prevented, that has negative consequences for people
who are already intermarried or who are going to be intermarried,” said Edmund
Case, founder of Interfaithfamily.com, a Web site with 20,000 readers. “What
they are going to remember is that their relationship is not approved of and
then they won’t want to get involved.”

While to some this smacks of giving up on in-marriage
altogether, demographer Gary Tobin thinks that a radical change in attitude is
what can turn the intermarriage numbers around, bringing in converts to cushion
the deficit from those who leave the fold.

“The Jewish community has an enormous opportunity to grow
itself if it quit being so insular and paranoid,” Tobin said. “There are a lot
of people interested in being part of the Jewish people, and it is our fear and
obstructionism that makes intermarriage a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster.

“If you don’t do anything to help those families be Jewish,
then you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of them end up not being Jewish,”
said Tobin, who spoke at Valley Beth Shalom on Dec. 3.

When it comes to creative and proactive outreach to
intermarrieds, Los Angeles is far ahead of the rest of the nation, Tobin said.
Reform synagogues in Southern California consistently win a disproportionate
share of the movement’s annual awards for outreach.

At Valley Beth Shalom, Schulweis has made outreach a
priority, focusing a Rosh Hashana sermon on it and hosting a lecture series on
the topic through the fall. He established a mentoring program, in which
members are paired with those who are unaffiliated.

An intermarriage discussion group at Shomrei Torah in West
Hills met for six weeks this fall and will be followed by a more intense
program. The group at Shomrei Torah was led by Ken Elfand, who was trained as a
lay consultant through the Keruv program of the Federation of Jewish Men’s
Clubs (FJMC), a group on the cutting edge of pushing the Conservative movement
toward involving intermarrieds in Jewish life.

The program, which also publishes material and holds
conferences, initially met with resistance both at the top levels of the
Conservative movement in New York and among some lay leaders.

“Some institutions are afraid that by reaching out to
intermarrieds, we are conveying the message that we are accepting of
intermarriage,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of FJMC. But
grass-roots support from synagogue lay leaders and rabbis in the field has made
the program a success.

“We find that couples and members’ children who have
intermarried are for the first time feeling comfortable going to synagogue,
because they realize they are not going to be turned away,” Simon said.

The Reform movement’s “Taste of Judaism” three-session
icebreaker has reached hundreds of thousands across the country, as have its
programs aimed at preschool and Hebrew school parents.

The success rate of such programs is impressive. A survey
conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute, a group in New York, found that
synagogue affiliation, ritual observance and cultural participation all jumped
considerably for intermarried families who had taken part in programs as
diverse as intense introduction to Judaism classes or one-time events.

There is a growing bank of anecdotal evidence that suggests
that more people convert after marriage, usually attached to a life-cycle
event, according to Tobin.

Schulweis, along with Tobin and a handful of other leaders,
encourage both rabbis and family members to invite potential Jews into the
faith. Jews-by- choice, Schulweis said, are often more committed than the born
Jews they marry, a fact that should help the Jewish community get past its
ingrained prejudice against converts and the misconception that converts “water
down” Judaism.

However, some non-Jews bristle at the idea of being asked to

“Just the idea that someone would want you to convert is so
upsetting,” said Judy Arad (not her real name), who has sent kids to day school
and kept a kosher home for 20 years, despite never having converted.

“It’s such a personal decision — it doesn’t get any more
personal than that,” she continued. “I don’t think anyone should ever convert
because they are getting married. If you convert, it should be because you are
really embracing Judaism.”

Schulweis said it is all in the approach, in not offering an
ultimatum but an opportunity.

“I am asking for them to feel the ambiance of Jewish wisdom,
and I am convinced they can be persuaded to eventually become Jews-by-choice,”
Schulweis said. “It must be a process as opposed to ‘do it now for marriage or
it’s all off,'” he said.

That was the case of Charity Brockman. Raised in a strict
Christian home, where her father preached his own brand of Christianity,
Charity felt no affinity toward her faith. When she and her husband, Adam, were
married by a Reform rabbi, she had no desire to convert but agreed to raise the
children Jewish.

The Brockmans celebrated the Jewish holidays with his family
at Valley Beth Shalom and had a Christmas tree at home.

“As time drew nearer for us to think about having kids, I
wanted to take a class or get some more knowledge about what does ‘raising my
children Jewish’ mean,” she said.

She enrolled in the University of Judaism’s introduction to
Judaism class, which has a high rate of conversion among its graduates.

“I think if they had been pressuring me, it would have
pushed me away from the idea, but they were so open and accepting, saying this
is what it is, this is our community and this is our lifestyle,” Brockman
continued. “The fact that I felt so enveloped in the community gave me a real
inside view of what it meant to be Jewish.”

Brockman converted last October and renewed her vows with
her husband. Their daughter, Rachel, was born a few weeks later.

To get to the point where an intermarried couple feels
comfortable being part of the community, rabbis are figuring out both halachic
technicalities and the choreography of including non-Jews in synagogue life.

Can a non-Jewish parent of a bar or bat mitzvah address the
child from the bima? Can the parent stand on the bima for an aliyah or even say
the blessings? And rabbis face a whole series of questions around brises, baby
namings and even funerals when a non-Jewish spouse dies.

In Reform synagogues, non-Jews are welcomed as members.
Official policy in the Conservative movement does not allow non-Jewish members,
although most shuls now offer a family membership to intermarrieds.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah, who has been officiating
at interfaith weddings for 35 years, complains that too many of his Reform
colleagues are being pulled by Reform’s return to tradition and won’t officiate
at intermarriages, effectively closing the door on any relationship between the
couple and the rabbi.

Rabbis who won’t officiate at intermarriages are more
sensitive today than they were 20 years ago, working to soften the rejection of
“I can’t marry you” and to leave the door open for future affiliation.

That is an approach that may have sat better with Arad,
rather than the outright pressure to convert she received from family, friends
and the rabbi before she married.

 “I remember how horrible I felt after we spoke,” Arad said
of the Westside Conservative rabbi who she and her husband met with before they
married. “I remember the rabbi saying that our kids would be rejected from the
community, that we were going to have problems, that life would be difficult
and that we were doomed if I didn’t convert. It was all negative, with no
sensitivity or compassion.”

Today, compassion has entered into the framework of
intermarriage, even in Orthodox circles, where intermarriage retains nearly all
of its historic stigma. Still, outreach-oriented groups are more likely than in
the past to accept non-Jewish partners who want to learn about Judaism.

Blanket rules have given way to a more nuanced approach, in
which rabbis take into account each individual situation and then may decide,
for instance, that it is not appropriate to follow the standard dictum of
turning a potential convert away three times.

“In some cases, because of concern for the family, you do
what you can to unify the couple and unify the family, to get them to express
Judaism more and get them to a relationship that is more peaceful,” said Rabbi
Yaacov Deyo, who runs programs and meets individually with young couples
through Aish HaTorah. “We have our beliefs, and we have to love people, and we
need to do both.”

Tobin argues, though, that passive tolerance won’t do the
trick. What is needed, he said, is serious investment. And that, he noted, is
nowhere to be found across the spectrum of the Jewish community.

“If you look at the total budget being spent on helping
interfaith families become part of the Jewish community, it is as statistically
close to zero as it could possibly be,” Tobin said.

While the Conservative movement publishes some material, the
only program they have right now is through the FJMC. In its major budget
crisis a year ago, the Reform movement cut all its regional outreach directors,
though enough money was raised locally to keep the Pacific Southwest regional
director going for two more years.

“It is the biggest mistake the Jewish community makes, not
spending more time and effort and dollars on these folks,” he said.

Tobin is convinced, as is Schulweis, that bringing people in
does not have to mean lowering standards or watering down Judaism. In a
best-case scenario, the spouse converts and the community grows. In a
second-best case, the spouse doesn’t convert, but the family is Jewish.

For now, Kim and Rob Cavallo are happy to be in that second

“My own Italian Catholic heritage is too strong to allow me
to turn my back on it,” Rob said, “so we live in a mixed household, and it
actually works.”

With the children in day school and the home unmistakably
Jewish, Rob and Kim are both happy with the choices they’ve made.

“We wanted to give our kids something that Kim did have and
I didn’t, which was a religious moral background and a feeling of belonging to
a community,” Rob said, “which I think is great gift.”  

Defining Family

A few months ago, in these pages, I described a brief visit to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of my daughter, Dafna, 42, and

her fiancé, Scott, 36 ("Father of the Bride," July 11). It was a first marriage for both and celebrated without benefit of clergy — Scott being Christian and Dafna, Jewish.

This drew some criticism from readers who felt that I was amiss in not discouraging my daughter from marrying a non-Jew. One, in fact, reminded me that some Jews sit shiva when such a marriage takes place and regard the offending child as dead. It seemed to me that is a bit strong. There was also a time when adulterers were stoned, but we seem to have progressed beyond that. (More to the point perhaps, how does one tell a 42-year-old daughter whom she should marry?)

Anyway, the stage has been set for even more protests since Dafna has now produced a son and you can add to the list of my sins of omission the fact that the young man did not have a brit milah, although he was circumcised by a doctor in the hospital. This was the subject of much discussion prior to his birth but the argument ended when Dafna pointed out that if we pressed the issue, Scott’s family might suggest a christening. Further installments in this true-life family drama may be expected at his bar mitzvah and marriage ages.

(One reader was especially incensed at my mentioning my second daughter, 23, who intends to marry a young man who is having a Conservative conversion to Judaism. This, she wrote, means that both of my daughters will have intermarried, the implication being that the Conservative movement is treif. I thought to myself that, even in Orthodoxy, the word treif has an elastic meaning; one rabbi’s heksher is another rabbi’s abomination — and don’t even ask about conflicting attitudes toward Zionism.)

This issue of how one deals with or even defines intermarriage is a major item on the Jewish agenda, so let me complicate matters even further. I have two sons. One is married to a certifiably Jewish woman (two Jewish parents, no conversions) who reads Torah in their Conservative synagogue. Their child attends a Jewish day school.

My second son is married to a woman whose father is Jewish and whose mother is non-Jewish. My son and daughter-in-law regard themselves and their two children as Jews and are raising the children accordingly.

In all this, who is in and who is out? I would suggest, over the objections of my "fan club" that the matter is one of self-definition, that in the end what is important is how one regards one’s affiliations and not what others claim are the laws as they define them. I know that this opens the communal doors to Jews for Jesus and their kind, but the rest of us are free to ignore their versions of Judaism and proceed on our way. Far too much Jewish energy and resources are wasted in dealing with these marginal elements and too few are invested in holding on to those who would remain with us given a bit of encouragement.

Numbers count. Our share of the national population has dropped from 2.5 percent to 2 percent in the past 30 years. These figures vary slightly depending on who is defined as being Jewish, but the trend is clear. So, too, are the increases being registered by other religious and ethnic minorities that give them added political and economic power, some of which is removed from us by virtue of our declining numbers.

But my critics have a point. Not only numbers, but quality, counts. We differ, to be sure, on the question of what constitutes quality Judaism. I am less concerned than they with ritual, but I accept their argument that without some sort of structure, some framework that includes generally accepted behaviors and beliefs, we are flirting with anarchy. I don’t know what the minimal standards should be but I cannot agree that ancestry should be the deciding factor. If it is, then we are best defined as a race and that, as any student of modern history will testify, means tragedy, not only for Jews but for anyone defined racially. Ask your friendly black American neighbor for verification.

You will note that I have refrained from mentioning the newcomer’s name. When my oldest son was born, in Jerusalem, I published notices in the newspapers with his name and the date of the brit milah. In a society virtually devoid of private telephones, that’s how friends and family learned about the event. Well, I caught hell from everyone for having made his name public before the eighth day. Apparently it had something to do with the dangers posed by the evil eye. Today he is a nuclear physicist engaged in cancer research, so it doesn’t seem to have harmed him. But if you think I am taking that chance again with a 7-day-old grandson, forget it. Far be it from me to defy the traditions hallowed by our elders.

Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal.

Your Letters

Who Should Pay?

While Sharon Schatz Rosenthal’s cover story notes that dayschools are costly, it fails to address cost efficiency (“Who Should Pay?” Jan.31). I believe the Jewish community’s limited funding can be more effectivelytargeted at bolstering supplementary secondary schools. A good example is theLos Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS), which Dr. Samuel Dinin established(“Legacy in Motion,” Jan. 31).

LAHHS serves more than 500 teenagers who concurrently attendsecular high schools. With more than three dozen distinguished faculty members,its educational program is on par with the best full-time Jewish high schools.Yet, tuition is around one-tenth the cost.

Leonard M. Solomon, LAHHS Board of Trustees Los Angeles

There’s another reason some of us are unable to send ourchildren to Jewish day schools — the lack of after-school care at most of theschools. Catch 22: We work to be able to afford Jewish day school tuition, butstill can’t send our children there because the schools are not willing toaccommodate working, two-parent families.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Woodland Hills

The truth of the Jewish community is that the vast majorityof non-Orthodox students attend supplementary schools and will continue to doso.

I take particular issue with the article’s innuendo that theLos Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education could be more financially supportive ofday schools. That may be, but they are more supportive of supplementary schoolsthan most, striving to raise the quality of teachers and the esteem of thework.

It is my hope that when we talk about Jewish education, wecan engage in discussion about communal goals and the myriad options that areand could be available.

Cheri Ellowitz Silver, Education Director   Congregation NerTamid of South Bay


I am unable to comprehend Rob Eshman’s logic regardingPresident Bush’s State of the Union address (“Ich Bin ein Missourian,” Jan.31). Saddam will never comply with the U.N. resolutions that demand hiscooperation to reveal what he has done with the weapons of mass destruction. Noamount of inspection is going to find what he has hidden.

Michael Brooks, West Hills

Interfaith Families

As a Catholic Latino married to a Jewish woman, I havelearned that many Jews consider interfaith marriage a terrible threat to thesurvival of the Jewish people (“Jews Must Draw in Interfaith Families,” Jan.24). I understand this concern, but I would argue that the threat is notnecessarily mixed marriage, but rather the Jewish community’s treatment ofmixed families. My wife and I are committed to raising our children as Jews.Sadly, while we’ve belonged to a Reform congregation for many years and havetried to become part of the temple community, we’ve had very limited success.Typically, we have been treated with reactions ranging from indifference tosuspicion. We are politely tolerated, but feel relegated to a marginal status.

In contrast, the church I attend supports a group ofCatholics married to Jews. The parish seems to welcome these families, fullyintegrating them in the church community. Although we as a family are notchurch members, we have developed closer relationships with this group than wehave with families at our temple.

Over the years, the few mixed families we’ve encountered atthe temple have gradually drifted away. We have also started looking foranother congregation. We’ll continue trying to find a Jewish community where wefit in. However, I often wonder how my children will feel about Judaism if theyare always kept at the margins.

R. Hernandez, Los Angeles

Gay Rabbis

Although I am a traditional Jewish man with traditionalideas, I support the idea of allowing gays and lesbians to become Conservativepulpit rabbis (“A Conservative Challenge,” Jan. 17). The Conservative movementshould reconsider its position and at least discuss the issue. Why should anyJewish person be excluded from fulfilling his or her dreams because of personalpreferences? The Conservative movement allowing women to become pulpit rabbisin 1985 was a great decision and helped fortify the views of ConservativeJudaism.

Israel Weiss, Agoura Hills


In Rabbi Michael Beals’ letter to the editor (Jan. 31), TheJournal incorrectly added the translation “repentance” next to the word teshuvot,which here meant “a rabbinic response to a query, based on halacha (Jewishlaw).” We regret the error.