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.”Â
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
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.
Â “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
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
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.
Â “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
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.” Â