Letters to the editor: Ben Shapiro, intermarriage, embracing the stranger


Prager’s Premise

I’ll bet you get a lot of letters that start with “Dennis Prager … ” Here’s mine.

Dennis Prager writes that taking in Muslim immigrants is causing Europe to go into a “death spiral,” and that this is somehow due to those immigrants’ non-European values (“Wisdom vs. Compassion,” July 21). I cannot help but read this in the context of the Holocaust. After the Nuremberg laws went into effect in 1938, Americans opposed letting in Jewish immigrants, and many Jews died as a result. Prager’s lead uses the Four Sons from the haggadah to derive the idea that wise is the opposite of bad. Does the famous line from Leviticus count for anything? “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Levitcus 19:33-34).

Jacob Schaperow
via email

New Voice in the Journal

I appreciate having Ben Shapiro’s voice be heard in the Jewish Journal. As an almost lifelong Democrat for 54 years and a conservative since 9/11, and a proud dual citizen of Israel and the United States, I think leftist values are not the predominant ones that will preserve Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people. Silencing conservative voices does not help Judaism nor the world at large. Giving articulate, knowledgeable, caring people like Shapiro a platform in the Journal will help our people and mankind, together with other respectful, knowledgeable, caring voices along the political and religious spectrum. Kol ha-kavod to the Jewish Journal.

 Gershon Weissman
Fundraiser at Emek Lone Soldiers

Intermarriage and
Genetic Disease

I am neither opposed to nor a proponent of intermarriage (“Marrying In,” July 21). I am a proponent of informed consent when it comes to any couple deciding to begin a family. With 42 percent of Ashkenazi Jews (observant or otherwise) related to one of four women who lived in the 12th to 13th century, we have a far greater burden of genetic disease than most populations. In fact, 1 in 4 Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier for a genetic disorder found to be more prevalent in our population. This includes any person who is or was of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, including those descendants of Crypto-Jews. Therefore, part of the dialogue about whether intermarriage can be done correctly should include providing the couple with genetic counseling and, if the couple desires, testing for disease burden.

Just a thought.

Gary Frohlich
Senior Patient Education Liaison
Rare Business Disease Unit, US Genetics

Those Were the Days
(on the Westside)

The folksy article by Jonathan Kirsch (“A Nostalgic Trip Down the Westside’s Memory Lane,” July 14) recalls fond memories of my youth.

For pure nostalgia, I’d attend the silent movie theater on North Fairfax to see Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and for more contemporary films, the Fairfax Theater, providing part-time work for Fairfax High School students, who’d let their friends in through the side door.

Billy Gray’s Band Box, a nightclub, the one semblance of “Borscht Belt/Catskills” humor on the West Coast, with hilarious satires such as “My Fairfax Lady, “The Cohen Mutiny” and “Goldfinkle,” and where Mickey Cohen, the head of L.A.’s “Kosher Nostra,” conducted business after hours, was ideal for teenage parking lot attendants. After all, where else but Fairfax Avenue could you feel the atmosphere of New York, Eastern Europe and the Middle East?

Ed Cress
Sylmar

A Kind Word for
Yona Sabar’s Word

Toda rabba (thank you) for publishing professor Yona Sabar’s “Hebrew Word of the Week.” It is always informative, often revealing new, unexpected insights into Hebrew words, both biblical and modern, while also telling readers about related words and concepts in a wide spectrum of other languages.

I look forward to reading more of Sabar’s words of week, and hope that he will publish a collection of his Jewish Journal column writing in a book.

Rivka Sherman-Gold
Yodan Publishing

Source Material for
‘Tycoon’ Miniseries

Judging from comments by director Billy Ray in the Journal’s story on his upcoming miniseries based on “The Last Tycoon” (“Miniseries Adds Jewish Context to Fitzgerald’s Unfinished Hollywood Novel,” July 21), it’s unfortunate Ray hadn’t caught wind of Steven Ross’ forthcoming book about Hollywood’s dealings with the Nazi regime (“Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America”). As Ross discloses, the Jewish moguls were far from the Hitler patsies Ben Urwand claimed in his wildly overstated book “The Collaboration,” and which Ray states he used to ground his treatment of the moguls in the series.

Although the heads of MGM, Paramount and Fox did indeed “cave,” for pecuniary reasons, to many of the Fuhrer’s demands in Germany, on the homefront, these and other studio bosses were working ardently behind the scenes to thwart assassinations and other terrorist plots by a Nazi fifth column in Los Angeles.

Also, for a more balanced rendering of Hollywood’s interactions with Hitler in general, Ray would have been far better served by Thomas Doherty’s “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939.”

Vincent Brook
Lecturer, UCLA

 

A Lesson in Embracing

the Stranger

Yasher koach to Rochel Groner (“Photos of Jewish Woman Comforting Autistic Boy on Plane Go Viral,” July 21) for embracing the opportunity to befriend a young Muslim boy in pain. Rochel lovingly created a sacred space for the boy and all those on board were able to witness her caring for a stranger who is very different from her. I wish we could publicize and see more of these magical moments in the world today, especially toward those who have special needs.

Friendship Circle of Los Angeles offers programs for Jewish children in the community just like this little boy and we welcome new families and volunteers to join us.

Gail Rollman
Development Director
Friendship Circle of Los Angeles 

Story on Gaza Is 

Great First Step

I want to thank Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib for offering me (us) a glimpse of hope regarding a solution to the seemingly hopeless conflict in the Middle East — and especially in regards to the situation in Gaza (“The Hard Truth,” July 14). I like Alkhatib’s idea of bringing in the U.N. to stabilize the Strip “by preventing another war, reversing the deterioration of living conditions, initiating infrastructure renovations and managing aid money in a professional, nonpartisan manner.” He has explained his idea well and why he thinks it would work.

Now, how do we get this idea to the right people so that it can be transformed into action and fulfillment? Any suggestions, Ahmed?

Lori Levy
Sherman Oaks

Muslims at a prayer service celebrating Eid-al-Fitr in Stamford, Conn., on June 25. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

American Muslims intermarry way less and are far more religious than American Jews


Since it came out in 2013, the “Pew study” — a landmark survey of American Jewish demographics, beliefs and practices — has been at the center of American Jewish scrutiny and handwringing.

Now it’s American Muslims’ turn.

On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center released a survey of American Muslims focusing not only on numbers and their way of life, but also on how the community has responded to the election of President Donald Trump.

Comparing the two studies shows a Muslim sector in America that is more religious, growing faster and feels more embattled than American Jews. But both groups voted for Hillary Clinton.

Here’s how the Jews and Muslims of the United States stack up.

There are more Jews than Muslims in America, but the Muslim population is growing faster.

Pew found that there are about 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, a little more than 1 percent of the population. U.S. Jews, by contrast, stand at 6.3 million — around 2 percent of all Americans.

But Muslims, Pew found, skew younger and have higher birth rates. More than a third of U.S. Muslims are under 30, only 14 percent are over 55 and their birth rate is 2.4, slightly higher than the national average. Most American Jews are over 50 and their birth rate is 1.9. While the median age of U.S. Muslims is 35, the median age of U.S. Jews is 50. Americans in general have a median age of 47.

These numbers explain why a 2015 Pew study found that by 2050, American Muslims will outnumber American Jews. While the Jewish population is expected to stagnate at about 5.4 million, Pew predicts that in a little more than three decades, there will be 8 million Muslims in America.

The respective studies also included some data unique to each religion. While there are sharp internal divides between Shia and Sunni Muslims, Pew did not address the question of “who is a Muslim” as it did with Jewish Americans.

The study reported demographic data that may contradict popular American stereotypes of Muslims. Only 14 percent of Muslim immigrants are from the Middle East, while one-fifth are from South Asia. And the plurality of American Muslims — four in 10 — are white.

Only 13 percent of American Muslims are intermarried.

When Pew released its study of the Jews in 2013, American Jewish leaders began fretting about an intermarriage rate of 58 percent since 2000 — and they haven’t stopped. By that measure, American Muslim leaders can rest easy.

Unlike the majority of American Jews, only 13 percent of American Muslims are intermarried. And the number has declined in recent years: In 2011, the number was 16 percent. The numbers are so low that the word “intermarriage” doesn’t even appear in the survey.

But another statistic shows that American Muslims may be following their Jewish neighbors. Among Muslims born in the U.S., the intermarriage rate is nearly 20 percent.

Most Jews say they don’t face discrimination. Most Muslims say they do.

Another reason for the difference in intermarriage rates could be the discrimination that Jews and Muslims each face in America. Jews, who are more likely to marry outside their group, are also more accepted in America than Muslims.

In an age when Trump the candidate called for a ban on Muslim immigration, the Muslim study focused heavily on Muslim feelings of discrimination and belonging in America. Questions were asked about Islamophobia, anti-Muslim violence, the president, terrorism, extremism and how Muslims feel about being Muslim and American.

In brief, the study found that nearly half of Muslims have faced discrimination in the past year, and 75 percent feel Muslims face a great deal discrimination in America. But nine in 10 feel proud to be American. Three-quarters of American Muslims say violence against civilians can never be justified, as opposed to 59 percent of Americans in general.

In 2013, most Jews said that Jews do not face a lot of discrimination in America, and only 15 percent personally faced discrimination in the year before the survey.

But Pew’s Jewish study was published three years before the spike in anti-Semitism that accompanied the 2016 election. A poll by the Anti-Defamation League published in April revealed starkly different numbers, showing that most Americans were concerned about violence against Jews.

Jews graduate college at higher rates than Muslims and earn more.

The graduation rates and household incomes of American Muslims track with the rest of the country. Like Americans in general, 31 percent of Muslim Americans have graduated college. And a quarter of Muslim Americans earn more than $100,000, similar to the national average. But 40 percent of Muslim households earn less than $30,000 — eight points higher than Americans in general.

Nearly six in 10 American Jews, meanwhile, have graduated college. And 42 percent have household incomes higher than $100,000, while only 20 percent earn less than $30,000.

Muslims are far more religious than Jews, but both say social justice is central.

American Jews and Muslims are particularly different when it comes to religion. While nearly two-thirds of American Muslims say religion is very important to them, only a quarter of Jews do. A third of Jews believe in God, compared to 85 percent of Muslims who said belief in God is essential to being a Muslim. Nearly six in 10 American Muslims say following the Quran is essential to being a Muslim, compared to less than a quarter of American Jews who say the same about Jewish law.

Four in 10 American Muslims attend mosque at least once a week and eight in 10 observe the monthlong fast of Ramadan. By contrast, two-thirds of American Jews attend synagogue less than once a month and only about half fasted on Yom Kippur.

But there are some commonalities, too. Nearly all American Jews and Muslims say they are proud to be Jewish and Muslim, respectively. And both groups prioritize social justice. Solid majorities of Jews (60 percent) and Muslims (69 percent) see “working for justice and equality” as an essential part of their religious identity.

Jews are more liberal than Muslims, but a higher percentage voted for Trump.

American Muslims responded to Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail by voting for Clinton. Nearly 80 percent of American Muslims voted for the Democrat, while only 8 percent backed Trump. By contrast, Clinton earned 70 percent of the Jewish vote, with Trump garnering 25 percent.

But proportionally more American Jews identify as liberal than do American Muslims. While nearly half of American Jews call themselves liberal, only 30 percent of American Muslims do — close to the national average.

But Muslims are trending liberal on at least one issue: A majority believe homosexuality should be accepted in society, compared to just 27 percent who felt that way a decade ago. Four-fifths of American Jews agree.

Photo from Pexels

Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?


In the great new movie “The Big Sick,” Kumail Nanjiani plays a Pakistani-American stand-up comic whose traditional immigrant parents pressure him to marry a nice Pakistani girl.

Instead, he falls in love with funny blonde Emily, which sends his family into a crisis.

“Can I ask you something?” he says to his heartbroken father. “Why did you bring me to America if you don’t want me to live like an American?” 

This drama has taken place over the centuries in many American immigrant family homes — Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Greek, Arab — and hundreds of years after the first Jew touched these shores, we still are playing it out.

Last month, it was Conservative Jewry’s turn. Two prominent rabbis, trained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and members of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, announced they would begin to perform intermarriages.

Rabbi Roly Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York and Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of New York’s Lab/Shul both decided to break with the movement’s long-held prohibition on intermarriage.

A handful of other Conservative rabbis, such as Adina Lewittes, former assistant dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, had done the same several years before them, but the high profile of these rabbis made their decision immediate news.

“The fight over intermarriage might seem like a rabbinical squabble confined to one small corner of American Judaism,” Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic. “But what’s at stake is actually the future of Jewish identity and pluralism.”

Since only about one-fifth of American Jews identify as Conservative, that may be overstating the impact. But what’s interesting about the current debate is the rabbis who are leading it can make the argument that they are the ones doing more to strengthen Jewish life and community.

For years, Jews saw intermarriage as one of the main factors chipping away at the American Jewish community, and research tended to support that view. Surveys found that as the intermarriage rate has grown, there has been an almost 30 percent drop in the number of Jews who identify as “Jews by religion.” 

But recently, something has shifted. As Green reported, a 2017 study at Brandeis University found that “millennials born to intermarried parents were much more likely to have been raised Jewish than the children of intermarriages in previous generations.”

In other words, intermarriage does not necessarily mean a loss of Jewish identity. Indeed, these rabbis believe, it could lead to a net gain in the number of people bringing Jewish practice and values into the world.

“On the whole, I feel like the motivations I and other colleagues have been talking about, in my limited data set, they’re being borne out for me,” Lewittes told me.

I called Lewittes because even though those big-name rabbis have grabbed most of the attention, she actually has been performing intermarriages since 2015, after resigning from the Conservative movement. She has officiated at six so far, with more in the works.

Lewittes, who is now rabbi at Sha’ar Communities in New Jersey, said she is choosy about which couples she will intermarry.

“I work with people who indeed genuinely both want to have a relationship with Judaism,” she said. “Both of them want to establish a Jewish home, raise a Jewish family. I say no to more people than I say yes to.”

She engages in several premarriage counseling and learning sessions with the couple and follows up with meetings and learning.

The ceremony itself is untraditional. There is no kiddushin, or ritual betrothal, and she doesn’t recite the seven blessings. Instead of a ketubah, some couples have composed a “mission statement.” There is a chuppah, or wedding canopy, and the breaking of the glass.   

Lewittes will not co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy. The ceremony, after all, also is about drawing the couple more deeply into the Jewish community.

Has it worked?

Lewittes said her admittedly small sample has been encouraging. Couples have continued to be active in her congregation. She has officiated at Jewish naming ceremonies for their children, and she has continued to teach some of them.

“The couples with whom I have worked have shown a real sense of connection to the Jewish community,” she said. “They look for ways to cultivate the seeds I was able to plant.”

Where all of this leads will be fascinating to watch. I certainly get the traditionalist argument: Marrying within your tribe is a powerful way of preserving your tribe.

But I know — we all know — too many wonderful intermarried couples. They continue to serve the community as volunteers, funders, activists. They raise children who go on to practice Judaism, embody its values and contribute to the Jewish community and the world. They succeed at being Jewish far, far better than any number of “in-married” Jewish couples who stay uncurious and uninvolved, whose biggest contribution to Jewish life was paying the rabbi who married them.

This truth puts rabbis and movements who resist intermarriage in the same bind as many were before acknowledging same-sex marriage. How do you exclude a committed, loving constituency, willing to belong and contribute to Jewish life, from meaningful Jewish rituals? Can intermarriage done correctly actually be not a curse, but a cure?

The ground has shifted on this issue, and something tells me we’re about to find the answer.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

More Jews mugged by the reality of intermarriage


Exactly a month ago, I wrote that “Interfaith marriage between Jews and non-Jews is back in the news.” The ending I wrote for that article prompted a few phone calls from a few rabbis, some of them relatively well-known. There were the rabbis curious about my argument, those who wanted to understand if a certain policy course is hidden between the lines, and those angry with my “surrender,” as one of them defined it. I told him he was too angry – but also that he has a point. I surrender. Mugged by reality, as one Jewish intellectual once said in a different context.

Here is what I wrote on the still-raging (see my proof further down) debate about Jews intermarrying: “the only way forward is to let this trial and error process run its course. Not because this is what the Jews need, but rather because this is what the Jews are going to do. If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us – and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.”

So a month has passed, and the Jews are still undecided, still debating. The volume of writing on Jewish interfaith marriage in America is high – while the reason for this uptick is somewhat mysterious (it clearly has to do with Conservative rabbis rebelling against their movement’s policy – but seems to have grown larger than that). In the next few paragraphs I would like to quote some of the articles I’ve read about this topic in the past month and add some comments on a few of the arguments these articles made.

In NY Jewish Week, Gerald Zelizer urged Conservative rabbis to “hold firm” – that is, refuse to perform intermarriage ceremonies. “The available information,” he writes to fellow Conservatives, “does not suggest that we Conservative rabbis should change our standard in the naive hope that standing under the chuppah will have a significant impact on the Jewishness of interfaith couples or the families they build.” He is right. The data does not support such “naïve hope.” He is also wrong: such “naïve hope” is not the main driver of change. Rabbis’ rebelling against the current policy do not do it because of false “hope” hidden in studies, they do it because of a very vivid reality. Jews will do what they do. If the rabbis don’t keep up with non-rabbinic Jews, they will be leaders with fewer and fewer followers.

In the Jewish Journal, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall suggested that the “progressive movements need to develop better marketing skills, because the Jewish religion is a wonderful product. It is a way of life that touches both the mind and the heart. We need to take more pride in our product and encourage others — particularly those who are marrying Jews — to join us as members rather than as spectators. In short, we need to actively encourage conversion.” Well, conversion is a great option. But there is a problem: if you do not perform intermarriage, non-Jews are not likely to be a part of your congregation. If they are not part of the congregation, you are not likely to be able to push them towards conversion. So first one has to answer the original question: to officiate or not to officiate?

A long Atlantic article by Emma Green (more descriptive than opinionated) argued that “the inflexible standards of Israeli Judaism exacerbate the situation in the United States and contribute to the sense among some rabbis that traditional and liberal Judaism may be irreconcilable.” Of course, the term “inflexible” does reveal a certain bias. You could make the same argument by writing the opposite biased sentence: “the lax standards of American Judaism exacerbate the situation… and contribute to the sense among some rabbis that traditional and liberal Judaism may be irreconcilable.” But, leaving that bias aside, Green puts her finger on an often-neglected point: American Jews (rightly) berate Israel when it makes decisions that impact the whole of the Jewish world without consulting them. But American Jews are currently also in a process of making dramatic decisions involving the core definition of Jewishness, and they are also going through this process without much consultation with Israel.

Paul Golin wrote in the Forward about his frustration with progressive Jews who also want “standards” for Jewishness and apply a lesser status to intermarried Jews. “The policing of Jewish observance by Jews against other Jews is disastrous regardless of who’s doing it,” he writes. And it must be said: his argument is cohesive. Golin would like the Jewish group to include all those who declare themselves to be Jewish. He praises Humanistic Judaism’s definition of every person who “identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” Is there a problem with this position? I think there is. It does not correspond well with the many Jews who think that Judaism is a religion, and it does not correspond well with the many Jews who think that the Jews are a people. In other words: Golin’s definition establishes a new, undefined group, of people who supposedly have similar “values” (assuming there are Jewish values we all accept), or a shared “culture” (whatever culture means in this context). He proposes a coherent definition – but creates an incoherent group.

Lastly, Ed Case, of Interfaith Family. In his organization’s blog, Case addressed the point I was making a month ago. “The problem with this incredibly non-activist approach,” he wrote about my article, “is that arguing that intermarriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. Intermarriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis not officiating – disapprove of interfaith couples [and] relationships”. Case is right: sending a clear and unified message might be better to achieve the desired result. But such an argument can cut both ways – and his opponents can make the exact same argument: “arguing that sticking with in-marriage weakens us is self-fulfilling. In-marriage won’t be an opportunity to grow in numbers and vitality if the messages the Jewish community sends – like by rabbis officiating – disapprove of insistence on Jewish couples and relationships.”

Thus, the debate continues, and my conclusion that we are doomed to “let this trial and error process run its course.”

 

Pexels

When family boycotts a wedding


“Does it bother you that my father is not coming to our wedding?” my husband-to-be Harry asked as we were picking out a tie for him to wear at our civil ceremony.

“No, it doesn’t,” I said. And that was the truth. I did not want someone who did not support our wedding to be present, to ruin the occasion with a long face and to mar the atmosphere with thoughts of tragedy.

Furthermore, I understood why my father-in-law was boycotting our wedding — he had survived the Holocaust, had managed to raise a Jewish family in post-World War II Germany and now his worst nightmare was coming true: His son was marrying not only a non-Jewish woman, but a German one.

The fact that all this was happening in Germany in 1988 put the horrible legacy of the Holocaust into sharp relief. No matter that I was planning to convert. The fact was, I was not Jewish at that point. Harry and I had decided to go ahead with a civil ceremony despite his family’s objections because we were about to move to the United States so I could attend graduate school at the University of Chicago, and it would be a lot easier to build a new life there as a married couple.

I did not, however, entirely get my wish of unconditional support from our wedding guests. Our witnesses, yes. My brother and sister, yes. Harry’s brother, yes.

Harry’s mother attended with a cheerful face — in that way, she was a wonderful actress. My grandmother, however, wore the sourest expression she could muster. She would never have committed the social affront of not attending. It was inconceivable to her that she should not be at her granddaughter’s wedding. No, she would keep with the social mores and be there, but she did say to my mother, as we were leaving the city hall, that this would not have happened had my father still been alive. This was as much a dig at the tragedy of my marrying a Jew as it was at my mother’s inability to keep her daughter in check. It was also typical of her to say this to my mother, who might pass it on, rather than tell me directly.

My grandmother did not object out of anti-Semitism but rather because she had experienced, during World War II, the persecution of the Jews. Her brother-in-law had been Jewish, and the families had been very close. That connection, once the Nazis took over their hometown in Czechoslovakia, put the entire family in mortal danger.

Incidentally, parents who boycott their children’s weddings run in the family, and oddly, to no ill effect. My father’s parents had not attended my parents’ wedding. Why, I could never quite figure out. It always struck me as odd because my father was their only surviving child. There were the travel costs, of course, as my grandparents lived in Germany and my dad was getting married in the U.S. Perhaps the language barrier was intimidating. But they could have afforded the trip, and they did like to travel.

Because no solid reason was ever put forth, I believe my grandparents’ reservations were the real reason they did not attend their son’s wedding. I still have a binder of my grandfather’s correspondence with my dad from that time — letters that bear witness to his severe opposition to his son’s choice, mainly on the grounds of culture and language. After he met my mom, on my parents’ honeymoon in Germany, my grandfather conceded to my dad that he could see why my dad had fallen in love with her.

Our wedding photos, taken on the front steps of the city hall, show my grandmother with a stone face. At the reception, after some wine, she loosened up. Later that year, when we were already living in the U.S. and my husband’s birthday rolled around, she sent him an envelope. It contained the same amount of money she customarily gave my siblings and me for our birthdays. When I asked her about it, she said, “Well, it’s only right. He’s my fourth grandchild now.”

My father-in-law, more reserved and more concerned with the family lineage, always seemed a little on the fence about me — even after I converted, after he attended our Jewish wedding a year later in Zurich, and when I was raising his Jewish grandkids.

But that, I think, had more to do with the fact that we came from such different worlds. Oddly enough, I could get him to do things nobody else could, such as when I persuaded him to book in advance a cruise to celebrate his and my mother-in-law’s 40th wedding anniversary — he never booked trips in advance.

In the grand scheme of life, the fact that he boycotted our civil wedding bore no ill effects on our subsequent relationship; on the contrary, it was a genuine manifestation of his values, and I respected him for it. 


Annette Gendler is the author of “Jumping Over Shadows,” the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burdens of the past.

Survey: Jewish men more likely to marry non-Jews; Wives more likely to convert to Judaism


A detailed study of non-Jewish-born spouses in mixed marriages has confirmed that Jewish men are much more likely to marry non-Jewish women than the reverse and that women are more likely to convert than men.

The study, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, was released at a press conference here Wednesday. It also found that most non-Jewish-born partners found it easy to integrate into the Jewish community, though few had been exposed to community “outreach” efforts. But they felt that born Jews lacked understanding for the converts’ particular situation.

The study was conducted by Dr. Egon Mayer, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, and Dr. Amy Avgar, assistant director of the AJCommittee’s William Petschek National Jewish Family Center.

They based their findings on responses to questionnaires mailed in 1985 to a nationwide sample of born non-Jews married to Jews. Of the 309 respondents, 109 had converted to Judaism and 200 had not. Mayer reported that while 74 percent of the respondents were women, a higher proportion, 86 percent of the women, were converts.

EDUCATION IS INCOME CORRELATED

The study found that converts tended to have somewhat more education and higher income than non-converts and appeared to have been more favorably disposed toward Judaism than non-converts. Women were more likely to convert if they considered religious affiliation important to begin with and felt conversion to Judaism would be important to her husband.

About two-thirds of the converts and approximately one-third of the non-converts viewed the Jewish family into which they married as being “very” or “moderately” religious. According to Mayer, “This might imply that many of them were actively encouraged to convert to Judaism by their Jewish families.” Conversely, converts were more likely than non-converts to perceive their own parents as being “not at all” religious or “anti-religious.”

More than 70 percent of the marriages involving a convert were performed by a rabbi compared to 21 percent of those involving a non-convert. But nearly 84 percent of the converts and 45 percent of non-converts said they had approached a rabbi to officiate at their marriage.

The study found that the Jewish behavior and attitudes of converts resembled born Jews affiliated with Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Judaism in America.

More than 68 percent of the converts, compared to 34.8 percent of non-converts, described themselves as “very” or “moderately” religious. Similarly, 84 percent of converts and 44.8 percent of non-converts thought it was “important to have a religious identity”; 73.8 percent of the converts and 59.5 percent of non-converts felt a “personal need to pray”; and 78.7 percent of converts and 62.2 percent of non-converts expressed belief in supernatural forces.

Photo: REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

The rabbis’ intermarriage debate: How to decide who is right and who is wrong


Interfaith marriage between Jews and non-Jews is back in the news.

Bnai Jeshurun, an influential synagogue in New York, will officiate such marriages, when the couple in question commits “to creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children.” Also in intermarriage news: Rabbi Amichai Lau Lavie decided to break with Conservative Judaism because of its prohibition against interfaith weddings. He will now perform such ceremonies.

The argument in favour of rabbis officiating intermarriage ceremonies is well rehearsed – as is the argument against such ceremonies. On the one hand, there is the hope, based on some, evidence, that when a rabbi is involved in the ceremony of an interfaith couple, there is a better chance that the couple will have a Jewish home (what is a Jewish home? That’s a question for another time). On the other hand, there is the fear, based on more evidence, that interfaith marriage leads to eventual assimilation, and that there’s no substitute to encouraging marriages between Jews (a message much harder to communicate when rabbis officiate interfaith weddings).

There are questions of principles involved, and there are questions of practicality. On the one hand, is it acceptable, Jewishly speaking, to give a blessing to an interfaith couple? On the other hand, is it useful (from the Jewish People perspective) to give a blessing to an interfaith couple? We have heard all of these arguments time and again, and the world keeps spinning. That is, Jews keep finding non-Jewish spouses, disregarding the internal Jewish debate.

Regardless of right and wrong, it is easy to say what’s the answer to the question of interfaith marriage.

Jews who have a strong belief that marrying outside the tribe is purely wrong – will make no practical calculations. They will say it is wrong and refuse to accept it, no matter how many other Jews disagree with them. Thus, in the Orthodox world there is not much debate, at least for now. The Orthodox world is struggling with many other contentious topics, and it has its own share of internal wars over important issues (chief among them the role of women in religious life). But the interfaith debate has not yet infiltrated the guarded walls of this world. Not in a major way.

Jews who have a strong believe that telling other Jews whom they should marry is wrong and unacceptable will also have an easy time with this issue of intermarriage. If a Jew wants to have a ceremony officiated by his rabbi, that is a sign of connection to his Jewishness and reason enough for him to be embraced and assisted by the rabbi.

The issue becomes more complicated only when practical considerations enter the discussion– when studies are quoted by the opponents and the proponents of intermarriage; when demography and continuity, rather than ideology and theology, become the key words; and when interfaith marriages are considered from the perspective of Jewish policy.

It becomes more complicated because the signs are mixed and a definitive answer cannot be found. As a pragmatic people, the Jews should know by now that “stopping” intermarriage is a hollow quest. It is not going to happen – at least not as long as the social atmosphere in America doesn’t radically change (and there is no reason to want that). As a pragmatic people, they also know that intermarriage is a challenge for Jewish continuity. Some of them hope that the challenge is manageable. Some even see an interesting opportunity (more people joining in by marrying Jews). Some of them are less optimistic. They see a trend that will eventually reduce the number of Jews and/or dwindle the meaning and intensity of Jewishness.

Thus, the only way forward is to let this trial and error process run its course. Not because this is what the Jews need, but rather because this is what the Jews are going to do. If studies cannot give a definitive answer regarding what we ought to do, and if the Jews themselves are not willing to agree on what we ought to do, then life will be our field of experimentation. Some Jews will marry non-Jews, and some will not. Some rabbis will officiate in interfaith ceremonies, and others will not. Some scholars will argue that intermarriage is about to weaken us – and some will argue that intermarriage can strengthen us. Give it two or three or four generations, and this debate will be decided by reality.

 

A Bar Mitzvah ceremony

If you want more Jews in America, you cannot ignore these facts


There’s a good chance you’ve read The New York Times report about the political affiliations of American clergy. If so, you probably were not surprised to learn that most Jews are Democrats and that Jewish clergy tilts even more Democratic.

“Leaders and congregants of Unitarian and African Methodist Episcopal churches are overwhelmingly Democratic, as are those of Reform and Conservative Jewish synagogues,” the analysis says. It finds that Conservative clergy is relatively old, while Reform and Orthodox clergy are relatively young, and all Jewish clergy, generally speaking, lives comfortably in neighborhoods of high-income, well-educated (and white) residents.

That is an interesting study, but it’s hardly the most important one about Jews in America in the past week. The Jewish People Policy Institute, for which I work, just released a study called “Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention.” It ought to make anyone who cares about having a Jewish future in America pause. It ought to make anyone who refuses to ignore the data at least somewhat anxious.

The authors found that 50 percent of non-Charedi American Jews ages 25 to 54 are not married, 21 percent are married to Jews, and 29 percent are intermarried. Just under one-third, 31 percent, are raising children as Jews in some way. They concluded that “a solid majority (perhaps 60 percent) of American non-[Charedi] Jewish adults will never have the experience of raising children in Judaism.”

The tables presented in the study are illuminating and sobering. Non-Orthodox Jews in America do not have spouses in large numbers, and if they do, then the spouses are not Jewish. They also do not have many children, and when they do, they do not raise them Jewishly. Like it or not, criticize it or criticize those who criticize it, believe that it can change or believe that it is a fact Jews must learn to live with — whatever you think, ignoring it would be a mistake.

This is a picture of a numerically declining Jewish community — unless you believe that an infusion of non-Jews into the community could keep its numbers up.

Family configurations for all non-Haredi American Jews ages 25-54

Alas, the numbers do not support such a belief. Having a Jewish spouse means a much better chance for a demonstrably Jewish home. On most questions — Are you a member of a synagogue? Do you have Jewish friends? Is being Jewish important? Are you attached to Israel? — the intensity is similar: Those with a non-Jewish spouse score low, those with no spouse score somewhat higher, those with a Jewish spouse score highest.

The authors of the study make it clear: “Marriage to Jews and the raising of Jewish-by-religion children are key to the current and future Jewish vitality of American Jewry, as well as to its transmissibility. The family first, and then community and friendships, create the conditions for formal and informal Jewish education to take place.”

Of course, there is a chicken-and-egg situation here. If one does not believe that being Jewish is important, one is less likely to insist on having a Jewish spouse and a Jewish home. If one does not have many Jewish friends, one also is less likely to have a Jewish spouse and less likely to have a Jewish home, even in cases where there is an initial desire to have one. If one does not have a spouse, one is less likely to have children to carry on the tradition. If one marries late, one might be less picky choosing a spouse of a certain tradition.

The bottom line is clear: If non-Orthodox Jews keep doing what they do, and if current trends do not change, the decline is all but guaranteed. The authors see a remedy for that in bolstering and emphasizing “the revival of Jewish social capital for Jewishly ‘impoverished’ families through the establishment of new Jewish social circles.”

I hope they are right, but for this to work, there is a need for Jewish leaders to acknowledge the challenge, define it as a problem and accept this remedy and its implications. Obviously, certain recent political developments have made a bad name for any call for parting with political correctness. But there’s clearly a need for that, too.

This is not, nor should it be, about disparaging Jews who make life choices as they see fit. And it is not, nor should it be, about alienating the non-Jewish partners of Jews. It’s not about forcing young Jews into marrying partners they dislike. And not about telling Jews what they should do. And not about saying that Jews who decide not to stick with Jewishness are in some fashion lesser people than those who choose to remain Jewish.

This is about looking at facts, acknowledging them and learning from them. It is about what we — those who want to see more Jews and more engaged Jews — can do to improve our chances of getting them.

The cast of Freeform's "Switched At Birth." Photo courtesy of Freeform.

‘Switched at Birth’ gets an interfaith marriage dilemma just right


“Switched at Birth” has broken the mold for a show that some might have dismissed as a teen drama.

The series, which premiered on ABC Family (now Freeform) in 2011, is about how two families handle the discovery that their two teenage daughters, Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) and Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc), were — as you might have guessed — switched at birth.

But part of what makes the series unique is that Daphne is deaf — and the show often explores deaf culture. “Switched at Birth” employs many deaf actors, and once filmed an entire episode in American Sign Language, with no sound save background noise. The show is trailblazing in other ways, such as how it handled a campus rape case in what one critic called a “realistically messy and fraught” manner.

Now, in its 100th episode, the show has turned its attention to interfaith marriage, as a Jewish mom and Christian father debate what religion to raise their child.

First, a little backstory: At the end of last season, Toby (Lucas Grabeel), the biological son of the Kennishes, and Lily (Rachel Shenton), a British teacher fluent in ASL, had a child, Carlton, born with Down Syndrome. They move to England to be closer to her family, but this season, they returned to Kansas City and had an impromptu wedding.

Since Lily is Jewish, they had a huppah and an interfaith ceremony.

Katherine (Lea Thompson) lets her son Toby know that she wants to schedule a baptism for Carlton. At first, Toby is indifferent, but because it’s important to his mother, he goes along with her plan, and thinks Lily will too, since she isn’t very religious. When Toby brings it up to Lily, she says, “I thought we agreed not to raise him as anything. We’ll just do the fun stuff like holidays.” Toby replies, “We had a blended wedding ceremony and that worked. So Carlton can be both religions, Jewish and Christian.” Lily points out that you can’t be both if you’re baptized.

This is already territory that is seldom explored on television, where interfaith marriage is frequently played for laughs (“The Big Bang Theory,” “The Nanny”) or presents dilemmas no bigger than whether to celebrate Christmas or Hannukah (“The O.C.”)  — which often ends up with an agreement to observe both without even a discussion of what it means to practice two faiths. Seldom do shows address the hard questions that interfaith couples must grapple with, especially when kids are involved.

One scene especially shows how delicately the writers handle the conversations: Hoping to convince Lily to agree to the baptism, Katherine invites her minister to explain the details of the ritual. It backfires. “I just sat there growing more and more uncomfortable. Hearing that reverend say ‘Christ’ a million times, I have never felt more Jewish in my life,” Lily tells Toby afterwards.

Even though she isn’t religious, Lily realizes Judaism is an important part of her identity and she wants that for her son as well. “Jews are defined by being other than. Not Christian. For me you’re either Jewish different from the rest of the world and proud of it or you’re not. And I’m Jewish,” she says.

Even with multiple major story lines to juggle, the writers bring nuance and depth to scenes like these, as when Lily perfectly explains the cultural bond Jews feel towards each other: “We have our own history. Our own language. Our own food. Our own sense of humor. And everyone who is Jewish is bonded by that and I want my son to be in that little circle with me.”

Toby and his parents eventually come to terms with Lily raising Carlton Jewish. but they acknowledge they have a lot of learning to do. Toby says he will be taking some classes in Judaism, and Katherine responds that she will also. Hopefully the series will show them learning more about Judaism before it comes to a close.

The show’s creator Lizzy Weiss, who is Jewish, tweeted, “I am pleased we got to discuss how marriage and parenthood can change your relationship to religion, even culturally.” For that, we applaud her.

Eric Trump with his wife Lara are expecting their first son. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images via JTA)

President Trump expecting fourth Jewish grandchild, from son Eric and his wife, Lara


President Donald Trump has a fourth Jewish grandchild on the way.

Son Eric Trump and his wife, Lara Yunaska Trump, the Jewish former personal trainer and former CBS producer for “Inside Edition,” announced Monday on Twitter that they are expecting a baby in September.

The baby, who the couple announced is a boy, will be Trump’s ninth grandchild. His daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism when she married husband Jared Kushner in 2009, has three young children.

The president tweeted his good wishes to his son and daughter-in-law.

“Congratulations Eric & Lara. Very proud and happy for the two of you!” he wrote.

Ivanka Trump also tweeted her congratulations.

Lara Trump told People magazine that the couple made the announcement at the start of her second trimester because they were afraid the president would give them away.

“Eric’s dad was so excited that we were worried he’d blurt it out at a press conference,” she told the magazine.

Jared Kushner officiated at the couple’s wedding at the Mar-a-Lago Club  in Palm Beach, Florida, in November 2014, which included a crystal-embellished huppah.

Study: 1 in 4 British Jews intermarry, half the rate of US Jews


Intermarriage among British Jews in 2011 stood at 26 percent, or roughly half the rate documented among American Jews, according to a new demographic study.

The report published Tuesday by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research is based on data from the National Jewish Community Survey and the 2001 and 2011 national censuses.

Out of 123,113 Jews living in couples in 2011, only 36,711 indicated they were married (in 89 percent of the cases) or cohabiting (in the remaining 11 percent) with a non-Jewish partner.

“Although this is the highest level to date and is reflected of an upward trend,” the report said, ”it has risen only by two percentage points since the 1990s.”

Overall, the intermarriage rate among US Jews stood at 58 percent in 2013, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate was 71 percent.

Although Britain’s haredi Orthodox population hasvexpanded greatly as a proportion of all British Jews in recent years, the authors of the report say that their higher levels of religious observance do not account for the difference between Jews in the UK and US.  “[T]he removal of haredim from the data barely changes the overall picture,” according to the report. “Removing the haredi data raises [intermarriage] from 22% to 24%,” excluding cohabitation.

The study also probed divorce. It found that 16,346 Jews in Great Britain are divorced, and 17 percent of all Jews are either divorced now or have divorced in the past. Jewish divorce increased between 2001 and 2011 from eight percent to 11. And while this is lower than the national average, Jews are still likelier to divorce than British residents with Asian or Arab backgrounds, the report states.

Reconstructionists consider dropping ban on intermarried rabbis


The Reconstructionist movement is on the cusp of making a historic decision about whether to drop its longstanding ban against intermarried rabbinical school students.

If the policy change passes, as most expect, Reconstructionism would become the first of America’s four major Jewish religious denominations to ordain intermarried rabbis.

Supporters of the change argue that the ban hews to an outdated way of defining Jewish identity and community, and that eliminating the ban would reaffirm Reconstructionism’s commitment to progressivism and inclusivity. In 1985, the movement was the first among the major Jewish denominations to ordain openly gay rabbis. And it embraced its first woman rabbi in 1974,  just two years after the Reform movement. Last year it became the first to install a gay rabbi, Deborah Waxman, at the helm of its flagship seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

“The Jewish world should steer away from looking at those who marry non-Jews as second-class citizens,” Rabbi Doug Heifitz of Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel, Maryland, told JTA. “Reconstructionism is based on the idea of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. We can’t expect our demographic profile to be exactly like what it was 50 to 100 years ago. I think it’s appropriate for us to at least discuss rabbinic policies that reflect the changing nature of the Jewish people.”

For opponents of the change, dropping the ban — which bars admission to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College or ordination to those with non-Jewish partners — would undermine the movement’s commitment to Jewish peoplehood and the legitimacy of Reconstructionist rabbis within the wider Jewish world.

“We think it’s a misguided, wrong decision to take,” Rabbi Ron Aigen said of his congregation, Dorshei Emet in Montreal. “We don’t think it promotes peoplehood. It undermines the credibility of rabbis who are trying to promote in-marriage. If rabbis can model intermarriage, then it doesn’t help make the case for trying to create Jewish families that are totally committed to Judaism. And we don’t think it’s going to bring in better students.”

This issue is different from ordaining gay or female rabbis, Aigen said, because marrying a non-Jewish partner is a matter of choice.

Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, New York, who wrote a widely circulated letter within the movement warning that the change would take Reconstructionism in a “new and unrecognizable direction,” assigning equal value to in-married unions and intermarried ones, and dramatically altering the idea of Jewish peoplehood in ways that would be bad for the Jewish people.

“I believe in continuing to privilege in-marriage, for all the emotional, historic, and even statistical reasons I have always believed in it,” Bronstein wrote, referring to data that show children of intermarriage are far less likely to be Jewishly engaged than children of in-married parents. Bronstein wrote that if the policy changed, his congregation would consider quitting the movement.

“It feels like a deal breaker for me,” Bronstein told JTA.

Though movement leaders are loath to talk about it, the Reconstructionist movement is also considering the policy change for a practical reason: Classes at the rabbinical school, which is in the Philadelphia area, have become so small that the viability of the entire seminary is at risk. Last year it ordained just six new rabbis.

In 2014, America's two main Conservative rabbinical seminaries ordained 31, and the Reform schools 35.

“The question becomes, can the college survive — period,” said one recently ordained Reconstructionist rabbi who asked that her name not be used. “You have a small teaching faculty and a lot of layers of administration. If you’re going to have classes of two students, it’s very hard to justify this whole structure.”

Waxman, the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, declined to be interviewed for this story. But an article she wrote in April 2014 on “The Reconstructionist Movement and Peoplehood” hints at where she stands on the issue.

“Peoplehood is widely seen — by individuals and organizations alike — as an end in and of itself rather than a means to an end. This is counter to classical and contemporary Reconstructionist aspirations,” she wrote. “The Jewish people in America are moving from being primarily a community of ‘descent’ (that is, defined by biology) to a community of ‘consent.’ In the face of many choices and porous boundaries, the challenge to ‘communities of descent’ is to find ways to renew ourselves so that our children might choose to devote their energies to us even after experiencing opportunities for affiliating with other groups and other types of people.”

Launched by the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the Reconstructionist movement envisions Judaism as a constantly evolving religious civilization stemming from Jewish history and culture. It really came into its own in the 1960s, when several Reconstructionist congregations formally took root and the college was created. The movement now has more than 100 congregations across North America, with some dually affiliated with other liberal denominations — making Reconstructionism a distant fourth to America's three main Jewish denominations.

In a bid to cut costs, the seminary and the movement’s congregational arm, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, merged in 2012.

Intermarried families are very common in Reconstructionist congregations, as they are in the other liberal American Jewish streams. At the behest of the college, the movement’s congregations have been debating this issue for the past few months and reporting their sentiments back to the movement’s leaders. In some congregations, a significant number of intermarried members support the existing ban on ordaining intermarried rabbis. Overall, however, most congregations appear to back changing the policy, according to synagogue leaders who have spoken with college officials about the issue.

The movement already has some intermarried rabbis — men and women whose unions were consecrated after ordination. Rabbi Michal Woll, who leads the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation in Michigan, is married to a practicing Catholic who goes to Mass every Friday. Woll says the college’s rule is too arbitrary to account for contemporary Jewish life.

“That rule is too blunt an instrument for the world we live in now. It doesn’t have the ability to suss out all the complications of our lives,” said Woll, who was ordained at the college in 2007, when she was single and dating – mostly Jews.

“There are lots of men out there who are Jewish who have no interest in Judaism, no interest in Jewish practice, and could not tolerate the fact that I’m a rabbi. If you are going to evaluate any of our partners, you should evaluate all of our partners,” she said. “Just being Jewish by label doesn’t get you very far. Is it important to me that somebody can be identified as Jewish? No. What’s important to me is that somebody has an active Jewish life.”

Supporters of the ban say the argument in favor of embracing intermarried clergy is belied by the landmark Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews, which found that the children of intermarriages are far less likely to identify as Jewish than the children of in-married parents.

It's not clear when the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College will make a final decision on the policy change.

“Regardless of the outcome, congregations will retain full autonomy to hire rabbis of their choosing,” Josh Peskin, the college's vice president for strategic advancement, told JTA.

Whatever ultimately is decided, Bet Am Shalom's Bronstein says it could splinter his congregation, one of the movement’s oldest. If the college elects to drop the ban, some members are going to insist the synagogue disaffiliate; others will insist it stay in the movement. Either way, some probably will quit in protest, he said.

Even if the ban stays in place, Bronstein faces an uphill battle winning back the confidence of intermarried congregants who feel alienated by the intensity of the debate.

“This debate has begun a process of destabilizing the stasis we’ve created here for decades so intermarrieds could feel welcome and involved,” Bronstein said. “No matter what the college decides, the worms are out of the can here.”

Debbie Wasserman Schultz takes back critique of intermarriage


U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz rescinded comments she made about the problems that intermarriage poses for the Jewish community.

“I do not oppose intermarriage; in fact, members of my family, including my husband, are a product of it,” Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the head of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement issued Tuesday, according to NBC News.

Last month, she told a South Florida Jewish federation group that intermarriage is a “problem,” the Daily Caller reported.

“We have the problem of assimilation. We have the problem of intermarriage,” Wasserman Schultz said. “We have the problem that too many generations of Jews don’t realize the importance of our institutions strengthening our community — particularly with the rise of anti-Semitism and global intolerance.”

Wasserman Schultz represents a heavily Jewish district in Broward and Miami-Dade counties that includes the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

Call for protest spurs Arab groom, Jewish-born bride to hire security for party


An Arab man and his Jewish-born bride hired 14 security guards for their wedding celebration in Israel in response to an anti-intermarriage Jewish group’s call for a protest rally at the hall.

Mahmoud Mansour, who is Muslim, and Morel Malka, who recently converted to Islam, reportedly are concerned for their safety at Sunday’s event in Rishon Lezion after the group, Lehava, posted photographs of their invitation on social media and urged protesters to rally outside the hall with megaphones and banners, the NRG news site reported.

Police said they will send personnel to the area to prevent any disturbance.

The couple is already legally married, according to Haaretz; the Sunday reception is merely a celebration. The groom’s parents and bride’s mother reportedly support the union.

Bentzi Gupstein, the chairman of Lehava, told NRG that his group was particularly upset about the wedding because of this summer’s escalation in tensions between Hamas and Israel.

“We are still at war and she is marrying a member of the enemy,” he said.

Mansour, of Jaffa, is an Israeli citizen. Gupstein said he was also angry that the wedding is taking place in Rishon Lezion, one of many cities targeted by rockets from Gaza this summer.

The father of the bride told Israel’s Channel 10 in an interview that he did not know about the relationship until recently and that he plans to boycott the wedding, the Times of Israel reported.

“I never dreamed that my daughter would marry an Arab,” he said. “I’m not going, period.”

The banquet hall management said several people have called to criticize the hall for hosting the event, while others have made threats, Haaretz reported.

Intermarriage Math


A short history of Jewish intermarriage


JTA’s Uriel Heilman reported this week on the continuing evolution of Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage. After the clarion call of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed a 52 percent intermarriage rate among American Jews, Jewish groups poured millions into efforts to stem what was seen as a threat to the future of the community.

Intermarriage has long been an issue of concern to American Jews. In 1926, the marriage of “Miss Mina Kirstein” of Boston to a non-Jew was considered worthy of a news item in the Jewish Daily Bulletin, the precursor to JTA’s Daily Briefing.  But the degree of fear engendered by intermarriage, not to mention its frequency, has ebbed and flowed over the years.

In 1967, a study by the Reform movement’s rabbinical group found that intermarriage rates were actually lower than they had been in the early days of North America’s settlement by Europeans. Between 1654 and 1840, the study found, there were 942 Jewish marriages, only about 15 percent of which were between Jews and Christians. The low rate may have owed something to the fact that large majorities of Catholics and Protestants at the time opposed marriage to Jews.

Back in the 1960s, long before the NJPS, solid evidence of intermarriage rates was lacking, but what did exist pegged the rate lower than what had existed in the first two centuries after the Pilgrims arrived. The federal census bureau put the intermarriage rate at 7 percent.

Two years after the Reform study, a woman identified only as Mrs. Moses Richler told a conference of Jewish women that if current trends persist, there would be no Jews in Canada in “four or five generations.” Mrs. Richler said that in 1968, 18 percent of Jewish men and 12 percent of Jewish women married out.

Since then, the rates have grown dramatically (and, last we checked, there were still Jews in Canada). Jewish consternation over the issue has also risen. Following the 1990 survey, several academics concluded that Jewish engagement was far lower among intermarried couples and the Jewish community should focus its resources on combatting intermarriage and providing avenues of engagement for the in-married. Others argued that if effective outreach was made to intermarried families, they too could be drawn into the Jewish fold.

A similar debate has unfolded over the decades within the religious denominations. The Reform movement has wrestled with the issue most prominently, particularly over the question of whether rabbis should officiate at interfaith weddings, gradually coming to the view that rabbis should perform such weddings in the hope that a welcoming approach could increase the odds of future Jewish engagement.  The Conservative movement, which long considered itself less vulnerable to the threat of intermarriage, had to reconsider that position after 1991, when the NJPS found that the intermarriage rate in the movement was not 5 percent, but 28 percent  Among the Orthodox, which maintain the most uncompromising stance toward intermarriage, the threat was recognized far earlier. in 1979, Rabbi Bernard Rosenzweig, the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said intermarriage had reached “catastrophic levels” and formed a commission to fight it.

In recent years, the intermarriages of several high profile Jews have both driven home the reality of American Jewish nuptials and raised further questions. An essay by Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman in the New York Times in 2007 challenged the decision by his Orthodox alma mater in Boston to eliminate his Korean-American wife from a photograph. The 2010 marriage between Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky prompted a debate over whether to celebrate the extent of Jewish inclusion in the corridors of American power or lament yet another soul lost to the community.

Meanwhile, the trend lines continue as they have for decades. This year, Naomi Schaefer Riley reported that intermarriage rates are rising among all American religions, but are highest among Jews.

The war against intermarriage has been lost. Now what?


When the nation’s largest Jewish federation convened its first-ever conference recently on engaging interfaith families, perhaps the most notable thing about it was the utter lack of controversy that greeted the event.

There was a time when the stereotypical Jewish approach to intermarriage was to shun the offender and sit shiva.

A generation ago, the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showing intermarriage at the alarmingly high rate of 52 percent turned into a rallying cry. No matter that subsequent scholarship revised the figure down to 43 percent, interfaith marriage was seen as the core of the problem of Jewish assimilation in America. Jewish institutions poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building with an eye toward stemming intermarriage.

Fast forward two decades and the question is no longer how to fight intermarriage, but how Jewish institutions can be as welcoming as possible to intermarried Jews and the gentiles who love them.

“Clearly, Jewish communal attitudes have changed,” said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, which hosted the one-day interfaith conference in June.

“One of the results of the whole process begun with the 1990 study was that in a free America we’re all Jews by choice. That’s been a profound insight that has permeated a lot of the work of the Jewish community in the last 20-plus years,” Mallach said. “It shifted the discussion from the classic stereotypical sitting shiva and never talking to a person again to saying that if we’re all Jews by choice, let’s also sit with this segment of the community and offer them that choice.”

In 1973, the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a nonbinding resolution opposing officiating at intermarriages. Today, more than half the movement’s rabbis perform interfaith weddings.

In 2010, a task force at the CCAR recommended shifting away from focus on preventing intermarriage to reaching out to intermarried families and adapting rituals to include non-Jewish family members. Now the movement is considering a further step.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the new president of the rabbinical seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told JTA last week that HUC is planning to take a “very serious look” at whether to end the school’s longstanding policy against admitting intermarried rabbinical school students.

In the Conservative movement, it’s no longer uncommon to see non-Jews on the bimah during a bar mitzvah service. Some Conservative synagogues even grant voting rights to non-Jewish members. Officially, the movement’s only rules on the subject are that rabbis must neither perform nor attend interfaith weddings. But the latter regulation often is ignored.

“First someone has to make a complaint, and nobody has ever brought a complaint against a colleague for having attended an intermarriage,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “It would be hard to imagine that someone would be punished for it.”

Even in the Orthodox movement, the idea of shunning the intermarried is passe, seen as counterproductive to the ultimate goal of getting unaffiliated Jews to embrace their Jewish identity.

“The preponderance of intermarriage has made it usually pointless to shun those who have married out,” said Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. “Once upon a time, intermarriage was a sign that the Jewish partner was rejecting his or her Jewish heritage. That is no longer the case, of course, and hasn’t been for decades.”

While there have been no national studies of Jewish intermarriage rates since the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, anecdotal evidence and general population surveys suggest intermarriage is on the rise.

A landmark 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-third of all marriages in the United States are now interfaith, and Jews are the most intermarrying ethnic group of all (Mormons are the least). The survey also found a growing number of Americans switching religions: Twenty-eight percent no longer belong to the religion in which they were born, or 44 percent if switching Protestant denominations is counted.

“What was once seen as abnormal, socially taboo, something you did not publicize has become socially acceptable,” Erika Seamon, author of “Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity,” said at the UJA-Federation conference in June. “This is a huge shift.”

Today, the very notion of fighting a battle against intermarriage in America seems as likely to succeed as a war against rain: It’s going to happen, like it or not. The question is how to react.

Given that the children of intermarriages are only one-third as likely as the children of inmarried couples to be raised as Jews, according to the 2000-01 NJPS, the overall strategy appears to be the same across the denominations: Engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism.

That’s true from the Reform movement to Chabad, with the exception of some haredi Orthodox. Where the denominations differ is how far one may go in that embrace, and how strongly — if at all — to push for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.

At Orthodox synagogues, non-Jews cannot ascend to the bimah, and many synagogues go so far as to deny certain ritual roles to Jews married to non-Jews.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism leaves it to the discretion of its member synagogues to set the rules on how to treat non-Jews. Rabbi Steven Wernick, the association’s executive vice president, says conversion of the non-Jewish spouse should be a goal. The only question is tactical — how and when to bring it up.

“Do you have the conversation about conversion first, or do you welcome them in and then have the conversation about conversion?” Wernick said. “You build the relationship first and then you have the conversation.”

In the Reform movement, there is some question about the significance of formal conversion.

“There are plenty of people who want to sojourn in the synagogue and not convert and still know they’re part of the Jewish family,” said the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who has advocated a vision for the movement as a big tent with the flaps wide open.

“He’s living in the Jewish community. He’s trying on Jewish commitments,” Jacobs said. “Conversion can’t be the only thing we talk about, but it also should not be off the table. We’d be delighted to have people join the Jewish people.”

Perhaps more than anything, the shift in attitudes has changed the conventional view of intermarriage as a net loss to the Jewish community, in the form of the out-marrying Jew, to a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.

“Once you’ve intermarried, it doesn’t mean you’ve left the Jewish faith,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, acting dean at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

“As times go on, we have to constantly evaluate what is the best response,” he said. “Given that it happens, what’s the best way for the community to approach it? The last thing we’d want that person to do is to throw everything away just because they’re intermarried.”

Stage dramedy tackles interfaith marriage taboo


If you take Israel out of the equation, there’s little in the Jewish world that gets people as riled up as the idea of intermarriage. For most secular and liberal Jews, intermarriage, which once carried a huge social stigma, has become more acceptable. Visit any Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, and you’re bound to come across all kinds of intermarried families. Indeed, in the liberal Jewish world, intermarriage has even begun to be seen as an opportunity to bring more people into the Jewish community. But in the Orthodox world, the stigma of intermarriage is as strong as ever, and Maia Madison’s new play “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning,” explores exactly what happens when a girl from a traditional family falls in love with guy who happens to be non-Jewish.

“The play is about an interfaith couple who want to get married and live happily ever after, as long as her Jewish family doesn’t find out,” said Madison, during a phone interview between rehearsals. Her main character, who draws a little from Madison’s own life story, “goes on a quest to find out the real meaning of her Jewish identity and the real meaning of family.”

Madison grew up in an observant home in New York City. Her parents were both from Orthodox backgrounds and kept kosher, to an extent, but Madison was also the first girl in her family to have a bat mitzvah.

“I’m a very strong-minded woman, I went to Northwestern University,” said Madison, noting that some in her family were disappointed she didn’t go to Stern College.

The idea that became “Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” came to Madison when she watched a close friend’s relationship fall apart after her ill father moved in with her and her partner. “She picked her family over her relationship.”

The experience made Madison realize that sometimes we’re forced into tough situations where we have to choose between family and love.

“Now if you’re 30, you can’t get a job, even though you have an MBA,” said Madison of the economic situation that’s left many post-college grads living at home. According to Madison, that new dynamic has wreaked havoc with the notion of “leave and cleave” that’s presented in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined (cleave) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

An additional topic explored in Madison’s play is how Hollywood and the world at large sees Jews. Madison recalled getting a call from a non-Jewish friend at CBS who’d just been pitched a show that he described as “ ‘The O.C.’ meets Temple Beth Israel,” and wanted Madison’s opinion as a Jew as to why it felt “off” to him. “Nobody likes Jews when they’re winning,” Madison told him.

“There are no shows where likable Jews drive around in fancy cars, live in million-dollar homes and spend a $100,000 on a bar mitzvah at the Beverly Wilshire, the same way that the people on ‘Revenge’ do, for example,” Madison said. The question of why that’s so is one that dogs her, and she explores it thoroughly in the show.

But lest anyone think the play appeals only to Jews, the director, Diana Basmajian, a non-Jew, says that’s just not so.

“No matter what a person’s background was, they were still talking in that lobby,” Basmajian said of the audience from the show’s staged readings.

Basmajian and Madison have been friends for more than 20 years. “I’m half Armenian, and I think as I got to know more of my Armenian heritage that I was drawn to plays about the human struggle, and particularly the Holocaust,” Basmajian said. “I was always teased by Maia, because my early work as a director was all Holocaust plays and plays on Jewish families.”

Basmajian jumped at the chance to work with Madison on her latest piece, because she realized it was something that was close to Madison’s heart. “It kind of bridges that beautiful gap between drama and comedy. That’s real life — some things are hilarious and some things, you’re on the verge of tears at the same time.”

Producer Laetitia Leon was also eager to work with Madison, and coming from an intermarried family, the piece was particularly poignant for her. “I felt like I wish I’d had this story when I was younger. It’s not that I don’t appreciate religion, I just wasn’t raised with it,” said Leon, whose parents raised her as an atheist. She believes the play will spark dialogue, no matter a person’s background. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I don’t think you were listening,” said Leon, laughing.

“You don’t want to write a play that only has meaning for one section of the population,” Madison said. “All of my gay friends came to me and said, oh my God, this is a coming-out story. I didn’t even realize. Every one of my gay friends had to face going to their parents and knowing that they may turn their backs on them forever.”

Basmajian, for one, is bullish on the piece, and she hopes it will touch audiences of all backgrounds who come to see it at the Open Fist Theatre Company. “We need that other voice out there that watches and listens and says, ‘Oh wait, I agree, I disagree, here’s my opinion, here’s what happened to me.’ ”

“Nobody Likes Jews When They’re Winning” will be playing at the Open Fist Theatre Company through Sept. 8. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit openfist.org.  A scene from the play will also be performed as part of the Temple of the Arts’ (www.templeofthearts.org) Friday night service on Aug. 17.

More Reform rabbis performing interfaith weddings


Danny Richter and his fiancée, Lauren Perkins, have never been to a Jewish wedding, yet this fall, the interfaith couple is planning to be married in a Jewish wedding ceremony.

The event marks other significant firsts: It also will be the first time that Rabbi Jill Perlman, assistant rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., has ever officiated at an interfaith wedding. In fact, it will be the first time that any clergy from the Reform congregation — Richter’s family synagogue for three generations — will have done so.

While the congregation has approved Perlman’s participation, it has yet to decide if intermarriages may take place within the synagogue itself.

The changes under way at Temple Isaiah are part of the new norm in the Reform movement as it continues to explore how best to respond to such unions, shifting its approach on the sensitive issue of its rabbis officiating at intermarriages.

The movement has “moved away from the debate of whether we should or should not officiate,” said Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement that represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America. “It’s part of the world we live in. The question is how do we engage these families into our synagogues,” he said.

CCAR does not have statistics on how many of its 2,000 Reform rabbis in North America officiate at intermarriages, but when pressed, Rabbi Hara Person, director of CCAR Press, said it’s about half.

The organization “believes it is not an appropriate way to judge someone as a rabbi,” Person said of performing the ceremonies.

While Isaiah’s senior rabbi, Howard Jaffe, describes the change since he was ordained in 1983 as seismic, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), says the change has been evolutionary. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that it has become much more common in the past decade for Reform rabbis to officiate at intermarriages.

In fact, next month CCAR will publish a Premarital Counseling Guide for Clergy, the first such manual prepared for the organization, according to Person.

Written by Paula Brody, director of the URJ’s Outreach Training Institute, the manual is intended for use with all couples but includes a separate section for counseling of intermarried and conversionary couples. The goal is to give clergy more tools to help couples discuss the meaning of their faith background, Brody said.

Brody’s exercises delve deeply into both partners’ childhood experiences from their faith backgrounds to enable a couple to be able to discuss the sensitive issue of how they will raise any future children. “It means a tremendous amount to the person from a different faith background to know they are being recognized,” she said. 

The manual also includes suggestions for follow-up, a key factor that is now lacking, according to many observers.

Some rabbis set conditions before they’ll officiate at an intermarriage, such as joining a synagogue or committing to raising future children as Jews.

Rabbi Lev Baesh worries such conditions turn off couples. “It matters so much for a rabbi to say ‘yes,’ ” no matter where the couple is in the process, says Baesh, director of the resource center for Jewish clergy for Interfaithfamily.com, a resource and service organization that supports Jewish life for interfaith couples.

That’s why Isaiah’s Perlman agreed to do Richter’s wedding ceremony.

As a rabbinical student, Perlman said, she was not comfortable with the idea. But she has shifted her views since her 2010 ordination. “It’s a blessing, in my opinion, to be there in that moment,” she said.

Isaiah’s Jaffe remains deeply committed to the view that Jewish marriage can only take place between two Jews, and that the rabbi’s role is to facilitate this marriage. But, after a year of a year of study and discussion of the subject with Perlman and Cantor Lisa Doob, he says he is comfortable under certain circumstances with his associate rabbi officiating at intermarriages.

He also said he is no longer so certain that his personal opposition outweighs the potential loss of a couple from Jewish life.

As more congregants, like Richter, approach him as their family rabbi, he said he recognizes his view of Jewish marriage is seen as a rejection. “I am aware of the impact of my saying, ‘I love you, I want to welcome you into the Jewish community, but I am not able to officiate.’ I know that in most cases, the words, ‘I am not able,’ are heard as, ‘I am rejecting you,’ even though that is not the message I am intending,” Jaffe said. 

Jewish population studies have found that as many as 50 percent of Jewish households include a non-Jewish partner. Observers suggest that the number is even higher when one looks at the dating population.

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do not officiate at interfaith marriages. The Conservative movement does, however, engage in outreach work with interfaith couples at all stages of their lives, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Fear over intermarriage is overblown


Purim is a time to dull our senses with drink and cloak our identity by dressing in costume. We do so in order to confront a troubling part of our history and the threats to Jewish life and continuity in the Diaspora.

In our retelling of the Purim story, we sometimes forget that our heroine was intermarried. The Talmud teaches that she was forced to marry the king, but there is no doubt that Esther lived a wholly secular life, virtually cut off from her Jewish community. Her disengagement has much to tell us about not only the intermarried today but about the challenges of contemporary Jewish life.

In a study we recently completed at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, we examined the predictors of Jewish engagement. Our goal in part was to assess the claim that intermarriage was the greatest threat to American Jewish life.

Our focus was on those who said they were raised as Reform Jews. We tried to understand what would lead adults as well as children from both inmarried and intermarried families to be engaged in Jewish life, raise Jewish children and feel connected to Israel. We looked at various sources of data, including the National Jewish Population Study of 2000-2001 and more recent data from applicants for Birthright Israel.

What is clear from each of our analyses is that the threat of intermarriage as the key cause of disengagement has been overstated. There are, to be sure, substantial differences in the way in which adult children of inmarried and intermarried households were raised.

On a number of dimensions, those with intermarried parents had fewer formative Jewish experiences. But when one takes account of critical socializing experiences, such as Jewish education, Jewish friends and exposure to home ritual, the impact of intermarriage is significantly reduced.

It is one’s experiences of Jewish living, education and friendship that determine who lives a richly Jewish life, not just who one’s parents are. Both for inmarried and intermarried individuals, their Jewish capital — the storehouse of Jewish experiences — is what centrally predicts engagement.

Some may interpret our conclusions as far too optimistic and perhaps think that alcohol and revelry on Purim have dulled our abilities to perceive reality. In fact, our assessment is profoundly troubling, rather than overly optimistic.

It suggests that the dilemma for the majority of American Jews is the lack of meaningful Jewish experiences. Like Queen Esther, too many contemporary Jews, whether raised by one or two Jewish parents, have not been exposed fully to the riches their heritage has to offer.

If there is room for optimism, it is that the situation may be reversible. Our study also examined data from a sample of Taglit-Birthright Israel applicants. Since its inception, nearly 200,000 young American Jewish adults have applied to the program. Despite the fact that the program attracts those who are interested in Israel, most of the applicants have had impoverished Jewish backgrounds.

What is clear from our assessment of the program’s impact on those young adults who participate is that the trajectory of Jewish engagement can be altered. As different as those from intermarried and inmarried households look at the start of the program, they look similar after the program.

The threat to Jewish life in the Diaspora is not the fact that Jews fall in love and marry non-Jews. Rather it is that the Jewish community has not created the kind of meaningful experiences needed for our traditions to be passed on to the next generation. Perhaps those who intermarry need special programs and services to encourage them to join the Jewish people, but our fundamental challenge is to engage all Jews.

The miracle we celebrate on Purim is that Esther eventually embraced her Jewish identity and convinced the king to spare her community, the Jewish people. In retrospect, it was fortunate that a Jew was married to a non-Jewish king. But the lesson is not that intermarriage is good. Rather we learn the importance of peoplehood and the fragility of life.

As contemporary Jews in America, we live as an accepted and highly successful minority. If our tradition is to be passed on to the next generation, we need to confront the very real threat of disengagement. Dealing with it is likely to be far more difficult but also more rewarding than simply telling our children whom they can marry.

Leonard Saxe, Fern Chertok and Benjamin Phillips are researchers at the Steinhardt Social Research Institute of Brandeis University. A copy of their new report, “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah: Intermarriage and Engagement,” is available at www.brandeis.edu/ssri.

Intermarriage reports urge understanding and openness


Three new scholarly reports on intermarriage argue for increasing Jewish educational opportunities, encouraging Jewish behaviors among both intermarried and inmarried Jews and opening the doors even further to intermarried couples and their children.

One report, the result of a new study, shows an intriguing correlation between rabbinic officiation at an intermarriage and how “Jewish” the family becomes.

“I would encourage the community to think more broadly,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor of Jewish community research at Brandeis University and a co-author of one of the three reports. “The ‘tragedy’ is not intermarriage but that we haven’t created an engaging Judaism that Jews, whether married to Jews or non-Jews, want to take part in.”

Saxe’s report, “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah,” is about to be released by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis.

It analyzes intermarriage data from several sources, including the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study and a 2007 Reform movement leadership survey, concluding that intermarriage itself is not as critical in determining a family’s Jewish involvement as the Jewish partner’s background and education.

In addition to that report, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Greater Boston just completed an in-depth investigation of its 2005 Greater Boston Community Study of Intermarried Families and Their Children. The investigation follows up on the study’s much-debated finding, reported in November 2006, that 60 percent of children in the city’s intermarried homes were being raised as Jews.

Also, the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies, an affiliate of Hebrew College in suburban Boston, will soon release a new study of 140 interfaith couples in Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis and San Francisco that describes an intermarried population whose eagerness to explore Jewish involvement is often stymied by communal barriers.

With all of the reports and debates over intermarriage in the past two decades, some might think three more studies are overkill.

Saxe disagrees.

“This is all a positive development,” he said. “The simple, end-of-the-world take on intermarriage that came out of a simplistic interpretation of the National Jewish Population Study data is now being better understood. It means people are paying attention to intermarriage in a more serious and thoughtful way.”

The “Chuppah” report, like the other two, goes beyond hand wringing to suggest policies aimed at greater Jewish engagement for both the intermarried and the underinvolved.

Relying both on national and internal Reform movement data, it shows that the Jewish behaviors and practices of intermarried families who are raising their children as Jews is almost identical to those of inmarried Reform Jews.

Saxe and his co-researcher, Fern Chertok, caused a stir when they presented that finding at the Reform movement’s biennial in December.

Their policy recommendations — that Reform Jews in particular must participate more actively in Jewish life if they wish to model Judaism for their children, and that this is more important to the Jewish future than staving off intermarriage — dovetailed with the initiative announced at the same convention by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, urging greater Shabbat observance among Reform Jews.

Creating a home filled with Jewish rituals and Jewish learning, Saxe and Chertok conclude in their report, has more influence on Jewish continuity than whether or not one marries a Jew. Thus the Jewish community would do well to encourage the former rather than worrying overly about the latter.

The newly released CJP report came about in part as a response to widespread criticism of its central finding that twice as many children in Boston’s intermarried households are being raised Jewish as was reported by the latest National Jewish Population Study.

“People asked, what did we mean by ‘raised Jewish?'” said Gil Preuss, vice president for strategy and planning at the CJP. “They said the way we asked the question led to a higher number of families saying they were raising their kids as Jews. So we looked at what that means in terms of real practice: day to day, week to week, what are these families doing?”

The result of that investigation not only confirmed the earlier findings, including the 60 percent figure, Preuss said, it also showed that a couple’s initial decision to raise their children as Jews is the critical factor in determining an intermarried family’s level of Jewish involvement.

Once a couple decides on a brit milah, or baby naming, for their newborn, he said, “the rest follows,” from synagogue membership to religious school to Shabbat observance.

The CJP report also showed, as did the Steinhardt report, that at least in Boston, intermarried families in which the children are raised as Jews look pretty much like inmarried Reform Jewish families in terms of Jewish practice. Nearly 70 percent of the children in both groups become bar or bat mitzvah; similar percentages are enrolled in religious school and are members of congregations, although the intermarried families tend to join later and leave sooner, and both groups attend services with the same frequency.

That didn’t happen on its own, local Jewish leaders say.

One major difference was noted in the religious education of teenagers. Whereas 37 percent of inmarried Reform families and 61 percent of Conservative families enroll their children of high school age in Jewish education, that number drops to 13 percent among intermarried families who are raising their children Jewishly.

The CJP is using this to beef up its financial support for Jewish education for teens and younger children as part of its strategic plan to be unveiled in May.

“The CJP will now spend a lot of time and money to strengthen the Jewish educational experience for 9- to 16-year-olds and their families,” Preuss said.

Also this week, the National Center for Jewish Policy Studies is releasing the findings of a new and extensive intermarriage study headed by University of Connecticut sociology professor Arnold Dashefsky.

Researchers interviewed 149 intermarried couples, mostly Jews married to Christians, in four cities, asking about their Jewish behaviors, degree of involvement with their Jewish communities, and negative and positive experiences with those communities.

Identity and connection spur more adult b’nai mitzvah


Norma Glickman wanted to make her own Jewish identity more meaningful. Her husband had studied to become an adult bar mitzvah, and after his death, she felt it would be a tribute to him to follow his example and become a bat mitzvah. When Glickman, 79, completed her study at Temple Emanuel, she wanted her granddaughter, Springsong, to share the experience.

Glickman describes her daughter, Carmella, and her non-Jewish son-in-law as “hippies who live in a cabin” in Republic, a tiny community in northern Washington state some four hours from the closest Jewish community in Spokane. Glickman arranged for Springsong to come to Los Angeles to study for her own bat mitzvah and attend Camp Alonim at Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Her granddaughter now goes by the name Shira.

Touting the success of her efforts, Glickman said, “I’m no longer Grandma; I’m Savta.”

The reasons why milifers and seniors have gravitated to adult b’nai mitzvah programs since the trend first took off in the 1970s are numerous, including the fact that most women didn’t have such ceremonies until the 1980s (the first bat mitzvah was held in 1922). One perennial influence is a child or grandchild reaching b’nai mitzvah age, and the divergent issues brought about by intermarriage can sometimes compel one or more adults in a family to take on b’nai mitzvah study to serve as a role model.

Gone are the days when marrying outside of the Jewish community was so rare that Tevye the Milkman could simply consider his daughter, Chava, dead and wash his hands of the situation. If Tevye lived in 21st century America, he might have seen his non-Jewish son-in-law, Fyedka, convert and become a bar mitzvah.

“Interfaith families [are] the fastest growing segment of the American Jewish population, numbering some 1 million families,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Interfaith Outreach Institute.

More than one-third of all U.S. Jews have intermarried, according to a 2006 study by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), producing 1.5 million children in mixed-faith homes.

Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, the AJCommittee study’s author, found that that less than 20 percent of non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism. Among those who do convert, 30 percent pass ambivalence and mixed feelings about their adopted faith on to their children.

As the community wrestles with the questions of how to preserve and pass on Jewish identity in the face of intermarriage, a frequent answer is greater education.

Grandparents, like Glickman, will sometimes step in to guide the Jewish education of grandchildren of interfaith families if the parents decline to take a proactive role.

“Grandparents have a unique responsibility and opportunity to serve as role models,” said Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, “and it is therefore not surprising that many involve themselves in passing on their Jewish identity to their interfaith grandchildren.”

Still, most Jewish movements would like to reach interfaith parents, especially considering that only 15 percent belong to a synagogue, according to Olitzky.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s executive vice president, feels that b’nai mitzvah can play an important role in educating interfaith families, especially children, once they are involved in synagogue life.

“If they are involved in religious education and observe some mitzvot and have a bar or bat mitzvah, I have a chance of educating them, and we want to help them grow,” he said in an interview with The Jewish Week.

Cantor Jay Frailich of University Synagogue in Brentwood said that when children of interfaith families are raised Jewish, the non-Jewish parents often want to know what their children are doing. “Such parents often have a feeling of inadequacy and seek a sense of participation so that they can feel more included,” he said.

Growing up in Stockholm, Annika Krasney, 51, knew very little about Judaism prior to her marriage to her husband, Robert. Before the wedding, she studied the religion at a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles.

“One thing led to another,” she said, and she decided to convert.

When she told her parents that she was planning to marry a Jew, “they were surprised and initially taken aback,” she said.

Her parents came around before the wedding, even making contact with a synagogue in Stockholm and arranging for a traditional Jewish ceremony.

The Krasneys now have two teenage sons, who encouraged their mother to study along with them when it came time for their bar mitzvahs. The study inspired her to take classes and become a bat mitzvah; her parents flew to Los Angeles for the ceremony.

Children raised in interfaith families can also inspire Jewish parents to take a more proactive approach to their faith.

Helene Morgan, 51, rebelled against her Judaism while growing up in Pittsburgh. Her husband, Tom, is Protestant, and after they had children, the couple wanted to bring them up in both religions.

“That didn’t work” she said, “because they got a lot of different holidays but no foundation of belief … they got a little of everything but ultimately they got nothing.”

Her husband grew up in a family that was not particularly religious, and since Judaism “resonated” with him, they decided to raise the children as Jews.

The Morgans joined Wilshire Boulevard Temple and enrolled in classes, with the parents and children taking separate courses: “We’d all be together as a family but doing different things.”

Her daughter, Dana, now 18, embraced Judaism enthusiastically and literally begged her parents to take her to Shabbat services. The example influenced Helene Morgan to study for her bat mitzvah.

Meanwhile, her husband has decided to convert, and the couple plans to renew their vows in October on their 25th wedding anniversary by holding the Jewish ceremony they never had.

“It will be a momentous occasion,” Helene Morgan said.

Chai Center rabbi explains ‘off the handle’ e-mails


The Chai Center presents itself as an open and non-judgmental address for Jews looking to learn more about Judaism, to have an authentic Jewish experience, or simply to meet other Jews.

“All our activities are for Conservative, Reform, nonaffiliates, & any Jew that moves! They require no prior background for your total enjoyment,” the center’s tagline reads.

Founded and run by the unpredictable and colorful Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, best known as just Schwartzie, the Chai Center makes Judaism accessible and hip for the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Jews who attend its events every year.

At 62, Schwartzie is enormously popular and beloved. A defiantly independent and off-beat character, he can schmooze it up with Hollywood types or go green with millennial do-gooders. His long white beard gives him a look that is both rabbinic and grandfatherly; his untethered vernacular and quirky style make it clear he fits no mold.

His hallmark event is Dinner for 60 Strangers, which he and his wife, Olivia, host every Friday night in their home.

And it was that Shabbat event that attracted Jamie Katz (not her real name), a 42-year-old paralegal and entrepreneur.

Katz was on an emotional mission to deepen her Jewish identity. When her mother was dying a year ago, she had a last request for her daughter: Go explore your Jewish heritage. Join a temple, find a Jewish man.

Jamie’s mother, who was Japanese, had converted to Judaism some 45 years before, when she married Jamie’s father. Katz and her two brothers had studied at Temple Emanuel religious school in Beverly Hills, and while she says she never felt like she completely fit in as a Japanese Jew, she never considered herself anything but Jewish.

A few weeks ago a friend told her about the Chai Center, so she went online and registered for the Shabbat dinner at the Schwartzes’ home. The food was great, the atmosphere was warm and inviting, and Katz felt as if she belonged.

The following Sunday, however, she received an e-mail from Schwartzie that felt like a verbal punch in the gut:

“Altho yr surname is [Katz] & U spk Yiddish, thts still does not make yr mother’s NON Orthodox ‘conversion’ kosher [valid],” he wrote to her. “Tht means tht if U ever met a Jewish man who’s family Rabbi was Orthodox or, who wanted 2 get married in Israel, U could NOT! … I appreciate tht U were ‘brought up’ as a Jew (even tho yr father ‘married’ out of the faith ), but U may not come 2 any more Chai Center events…. We consider INTERMARRAIGE a grt tragedy for the Jewish ppl, even if the non Jewish person in the equation thinks & feels Jewish…. In the eyes of Al-mighty G*d, it’s important 4 U NOT 2 date Jewish men. The result of which could, G-d forbid, end in grt tragedy, 4 both of U.”

Shocked and pained, Katz wrote back to Schwartzie, reiterating her commitment to Judaism. In the escalating exchange, Schwartzie castigated Katz’s late father for choosing to marry a non-Jew, and about Katz’s recently deceased mother, he wrote: “She might have been agrt mother, but as a ‘Jewish’ mother she was a miserable failure! In truth she really was not a FAILURE as a Jew; since, in the eyes of G-d (where it COUNTS) she wasn’t!”

Katz was crushed.

“I thought I would find a safe haven in the Jewish community, and I’ve been shunned by my own people,” said Katz, sobbing into the phone just hours after she received Schwartzie’s second missive. “I feel embarrassed and ashamed, like I don’t belong and I’m not worthy.”

Katz is not the only recipient of such letters from Schwartzie. The Journal has learned that this maverick wizard of outreach has directed angry e-mails to other women he perceives as threats to his mission toward ensuring that Jews marry Jews and thus guarantee the continuation of a 4,000-year chain of tradition.

In addition to Katz, two other women independently sent to the Jewish Journal samples of Schwartzie’s letters — rambling e-mails in large print, heavy with text-message shorthand punctuated with varied text colors, point sizes and fonts. One recipient, who is not Jewish, attended his Rosh Hashanah services last fall with a Jewish friend and followed up by sending the rabbi a question about her Jewish ex-boyfriend. Another woman, who is Jewish, brought a non-Jewish man to Schwartzie’s seder in 2005. Filled with foul language and content that can easily be construed as bigoted, sexist and threatening, the e-mails seem to contradict the rabbi’s aura of openness and non-judgmental warmth.

In a face-to-face interview, Schwartzie stood his ground when first confronted with the letters. He said that while he regretted language that may have been perceived as a personal attack, he stood by his goal of sounding an intentionally vicious warning to ward off non-Jews who might infiltrate his events in the hopes of ensnaring a Jewish partner and eventually intermarrying.

“It’s destroying Jewish people,” he said, explaining his visceral abhorrence of intermarriage. “This is not just a sin and you shouldn’t do it, like don’t eat lobster.”

Fixing his blue eyes in a fierce stare, he tried to convey the vehemence of what he wants to get across to the women he calls “shiksas”: “You are a f—ing Nazi. You are killing a Jew and I hate you for that and I’ll piss on your grave. You are not going to kill my Jews.”

In follow-up e-mails, the rabbi offered qualified apologies for his letters.

“My reaction shdnt have been on a personal but more correctly, on an IMpersonal level. It matters not the kind of person tht the Non Jew is. So anythig directed @ the Person of the non Jew is wrong. For tht I declare tht I was mistaken & will personally apologize 2 those tht took it personally,” he wrote in an e-mail. As of press time, none of the women had heard from Schwartzie.

Schwartzie’s son, Mendel Schwartz, serves as development director for the Chai Center and is being groomed to take over. He was straightforward in his response to the content of the e-mails.

Some boo the Hindu that you do so well — others, not so much


Last Friday night at Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe came off the bimah during services and whispered into my ear. “Interdating?! I bet you got some letters.”

The rabbi was right: Letters, phone calls and a woman at Sinai who followed me down in the elevator and out into the parking garage while she accused me of destroying the Jewish people.

In last week’s column I proposed addressing the pain of Jewish women approaching the end of their childbearing years who cannot find a Jewish mate. One solution, I wrote, would be to encourage them to date non-Jews, and for our rabbis and community leaders to create pathways for inclusion and conversion for the non-Jewish partners.

The idea sparked dozens of responses pro and con, and in fairness to the idea’s detractors (and supporters) we reprint a sample on these pages, with a brief coda by me.

Our Hindu Widows

I am one of those 40-something women that you referred to in your article, “Our Hindu Widows,” (Aug. 10).

Almost all synagogue- (including Orthodox) and Jewish organization-sponsored singles events are for the 21-39 age range. As I said to an Orthodox rabbi a few years ago, “I didn’t choose to be single and in my 40s … it’s just the way things have worked out.”

The synagogues and Jewish organizations make the age range quite clear. Some go as far as to card individuals before allowing them to enter the event.

Your suggestion of interdating is too easy, in addition to being an unacceptable option for me and for many of us. There are single Jewish women in their 30s and 40s, and there are single Jewish men in there 30s and 40s, as well.

Los Angeles is the second largest Jewish community in the United States. Instead of suggesting interdating, why don’t you challenge those rabbis and community leaders in the synagogues and Jewish organizations to sponsor events for those of us who are 40-plus?

Try being part of the solution instead of helping to decrease our numbers.

Name withheld by request

Yesterday I came across your editorial on the problems of 30’s-40’s women finding Jewish men to marry . . . I naturally read it with great interest.

I could identify with all the players in the drama. I had fallen hopelessly in love several times in my teen ‘s and 20’s and would have certainly married the objects of my affection (or was it affliction), if they wold have had me (actually one young woman who I adored was secretly in love with me but her mother pushed her to marry the nice Jewish doctor and never let her know that I was leaving message after message for her … When I was in my 40’s, I was meeting many attractive, eligible women but was no longer falling in love……perhaps what you describe in your piece was true of me….too many options……

The last number of years I have felt ready and have been more open.

I’m open to having a family, and have been dating women much younger than myself. I went to the Oscars this year with one of the young stars of a musical, she’s 22. In the fall I had a serious relationship with a bright young woman of 27 that I thought I had potential, but sadly fizzled. I’m on my way to NY now, where there is a rather attractive model, who is a Stanford grad, also in her 20’s whom I’ve been seeing when I’m in the city. None of these women are Jewish. There is a young woman of 32 who I have dated since she was 19 but stopped seeing recently, a very bright, terrific person, who I suspect has always been in love with me, but sadly that level of Chemistry, hasn’t been there for me. She is not Jewish, but is in the process of converting.

Now what’s ironic here is that when I meet a Jewish woman in her 30’s or 40’s…..that I feel I could develop a serious interest with, most are not interested in a man over 50. Why is that? I only date super intelligent, spiritually evolved women…….the gentile women don’t have a problem with age (I think of my self as a 9 yr. old in an older guy’s body). Maybe some of these spectacular women who are seriously looking for a Jewish “mister right” should just set their sights higher…… age wise.

My vitality level is really higher than most of the guys I know in their 30’s. I’ve never been married and I’ve saved all my alimony for the right woman. Anyhow, you can pass this email along to your 30-40 something desperate to be housewives or career women, if you like……..

Name withheld by request
The week your article “Hindu Widows” was published was also the week that I launched a new venture, Frieda’s Table, focusing on single, eligible Jews in their thirties and forties. As a woman who met my bashert late and had my children just “under the wire,” I am keenly aware that I might not have been so lucky. I also know that many events for Jewish singles are devoid of Jewish content, and that Jewish singles are (still!) treated with condescension. The meet-markets and even singles services can be very alienating. My goal is to create interesting, rewarding, programs in a respectful and caring atmosphere. The worst-case scenario for a singles event should be that someone might say, “That was a great program. I got a lot out of it, and I met some really nice people. Too bad I didn’t connect with anyone I want to date.”

All those “beautiful, brilliant” women you describe can regale you with horror stories of Jewish events that scarred them rather than helped. I don’t think rabbis can responsibly recommend inter-dating until we do our part to promote intra-dating. We need to make showing up as a single person — whether to a singles event or to anything else in the Jewish community — a welcoming, positive experience.

Our Hindu Widows


I know too many beautiful, brilliant single Jewish women in their 30s and 40s.

I hear too many stories about the lack of available Jewish men, the first dates who are too lost or too pathetic, the fights over marriage and children that end the relationship and send the woman, now a bit older, diving back into the ever more shallow pool.

But I don’t blame these women, of course not.

I blame rabbis.

That’s right.

They see the same lonely, sensational women I do: a slim, passionate Hollywood executive pushing 40 who simply, desperately, still seeks the elusive nice Jewish guy. A brilliant doctor with a runner’s body who, at 44, still can’t find “the one.” A writer who asks me to keep my eye out for any Israelis new to town, because she figures she’s dated most of the native Jews. A marketing executive who has given up on finding the right Jewish man: “If it happens, it happens.”

I ask her if she still wants children, and she says, “More than anything.” And tears come to her eyes.

I talked with four of these women over the space of three days last week, all wondering if I had come across any single Jewish men. I mentioned a name. Here’s what happened: They had already dated the guy. I mentioned another name. Already dated him, too: At 41, he was not quite ready to settle down. A straight, eligible Jewish man in his 40s gets around this town faster than the weekend box office numbers.

Yes, this is a problem for non-Jewish women, as well, but if your requirements for potential dates includes “must be Jewish,” you suddenly rule out 94 percent of potential males. There aren’t enough marriageable Jewish men out there. Period. It’s a game of musical chairs, and someone is going to get left out.

So these women go to their rabbis, and the rabbis wring their hands and commiserate. They also give sermons about the evils of intermarriage, about the scourge of assimilation. They might, taking a proactive approach, arrange some speed dating or singles mixer program at their shul.

Does any of this work?

Well, it hasn’t for the women I know. We all know women like them, and the numbers bear it out: Later marriage means lower fertility, and outside of the Orthodox world, Jewish birthrates are plummeting.

“In a community that has long-since ceased to replace its natural losses, continued low fertility rates mean that the number of children in the communal pipeline will soon drop sharply,” Jewish Theological Seminary Provost Jack Wertheimer wrote in a well-known 2005 Commentary essay, “causing a decline over the next decade in enrollments in Jewish schools and other institutions for the young.”

Wertheimer’s proffered solution was for liberal Jewry to promulgate the lessons and values of Orthodoxy, which, of course, result in far less intermarriage. Get women out of schools and workplaces and into marriage beds sooner, said Wertheimer. Reinforce the taboo against interdating and intermarriage.

“In the face of today’s secular norms,” Wertheimer wrote, “the Orthodox call on an additional source of strength: the power of Jewish norms and obligations.”

Wertheimer’s heartfelt attempt at a solution might help a bit, but it is more wishful than wise. It also fails to address the more pressing human tragedy behind these numbers: datelessness, loneliness and childlessness for the women we know and love.

A more practical and immediate answer lies just outside these women’s doorstep: interdating.

There, I said it.

By clinging to the taboo against interdating, we have created a class of women only somewhat less bereft and miserable than the Hindu women once doomed to celibacy and isolation after becoming widows. What kind of tribe condones this? Why are single women the only class of people punished for keeping faith with Jewish peoplehood? When I asked one of these women if she would consider dating non-Jews, her answer was visceral.

“I can’t believe you’re suggesting that!” she said. “So much of what’s important to me is Jewish: My values, my philanthropy, my activities.”

But if her rabbi encouraged her to find the right man, regardless of his religion, then opened his or her arms to that man with programs, classes and encouragement — wouldn’t that increase the odds of happiness all around?

I ran the idea by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University and an authority on Jewish law.

“It’s very complicated,” Dorff said, “It is cruel to say to a woman in her 40s better you should remain unmarried than date a non-Jew,'” Dorff said. “On the other hand, how do you say to people in their 20s only look for Jews, but then tell people in their 30s and 40s, if you haven’t found any, maybe you should date non-Jews?”

On the other hand, Dorff said, there are many rules we apply to younger people that we change or adjust as we age.

Clearly this is an idea the Conservative and Reform movements need to revisit, now.

The irony is that the women for whom Jewish identity is the strongest may have the least chance of passing that identity on. Our taboos have consigned them to be exiles among exiles, outcasts among outcasts. Like the Hindu widows in the movie, “Water,” they pay a terrible price for an inflexible idea.

Our rabbis and community leaders need to spend less time hand-wringing and more time devising the words, teachings and institutional structures that allow Jewish women of a certain age to freely seek life partners among non-Jews, then draw those non-Jews toward the richness and beauty of Jewish life — before or during marriage.

Yes, marrying Jewish is the ideal. Dating Jewish is the ideal. But what our inability to find creative solutions gets us is a massive group of single women who are facing their 40s childless. We have numerous opportunities to argue statistics and write essays for Commentary — they have one shot at childbearing.

:::::::::::::::::::::::::Click here to read some of the huge outpouring of Letters to the Editor regarding to this column.

‘Half-Jews’ fight for acceptance


The Jewish world has a problem with the way Renee Kaplan defines herself: half-Jewish. Kaplan, a television producer in her mid-30s, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who was raised Jewish.

“I’ve had endlessly to defend my half-Jewishness: resist rabbis who wanted to convert me, resent Jewish men who didn’t want to date me,” she writes in “Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes” (Soft Skull Press, 2006).

Kaplan says she rejects anyone who deems her dual identity inauthentic.

She is among the increasing number of adult children of intermarriage who consider themselves half-Jewish. While the Jewish religious denominations have varying views of what makes someone Jewish (the Conservative and Orthodox streams count as Jews only those with Jewish mothers, whereas the Reform and Reconstructionist movements sanction Jewish lineage from either side), the denominations are united in their opposition to the notion of one being half-Jewish.

You either are or you aren’t Jewish, they hold.

Yet the “half” term is gaining currency, particularly among those with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. The phenomenon is encouraged by Web sites, books and groups that celebrate or support these self-proclaimed half-Jews, from www.halfjew.com launched to establish “an identity for HalfJews,” to the short-lived student group at Brown University called “The Half-Jew Crew.”

Many children of intermarriage say they simply cannot turn their backs on the non-Jewish half of their identity. Their rabbis may say they are Jewish, but in their hearts they are also whatever grandma and grandpa are.

This openness to multiple identities is particularly true among college students, according to Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst, who interviewed hundreds of students for “The Half-Jewish Book” published in 2000.

Klein says those who call themselves half-Jewish “feel they are a combination, they are an amalgam, they are bicultural.”

A 2005 survey by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life found that 48 percent of college students who consider themselves Jewish come from intermarried homes. It’s from this population that a new subculture is emerging of “people who draw from both sides of their heritage and synthesize their cultural halves into a remarkable new identity,” the authors write.

It’s something to celebrate, not hide, they argue.

Klein says his 27-year-old daughter considers herself half-Jewish, though he and Vuijst raised her as a Jew. She dedicated her bat mitzvah speech to her Dutch grandparents, who were honored as “Righteous Gentiles” for saving Jews during the Holocaust.

But her divided identity also causes her pain. In Israel on a visit, “everyone said she wasn’t Jewish,” Klein relates. At college she was kicked out of the kosher food line.

Some who use the term are conflicted.

Georgiana Cohen, a 27-year-old Web content specialist in Somerville, Mass., was raised by a non-Jewish mother but spent five years at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Fla. That experience, she says, “legitimized a last name I carried around like a fake ID.”

The split between life at home and at school was stark, she recalls.

“My childhood was all Christmas trees and Easter candy,” Cohen says. “Meanwhile, back in Boca, I sang folk songs like ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ led weekly minyan services with my best friend and captured Hebrew spelling bee trophies.”

She refers to herself now, somewhat flippantly, as “half-Jewish and half ‘fill-in-the-blank.’ “

Some self-proclaimed half-Jews feel anger, as they struggle for a sense of belonging in Jewish denominations that reject their dual identity.

In 2006, outreach activist Robin Margolis launched the Half-Jewish Network, an online community where those with some family connection to Judaism can express themselves openly whether they identify as Jewish, half-Jewish, Christian or nothing.

“A lot of these people have been greeted by organizations where the first demand is ‘make a choice,’ and if they don’t, they’re not welcome,” says Margolis, who attends a Jewish Renewal congregation.

The Reform movement, which accepts Jewish patrilineal descent, does not allow children in its religious schools to receive education in a second religion.

Some half-Jewish activists believe demography will prove a stronger force than tradition.

Nearly half of American Jews are intermarrying, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey. As more of these interfaith families assert their place in the Jewish community, they likely will gain a more influential role in determining how the community views their distinct identity.

“We’ll be the majority of Jews in this country by 2030,” Margolis says. “Then the playing field changes. If we’re the majority, we’ll decide who’s a Jew.”

Taste-testing Judaism


Ingrid Vanderhope, an Australian-born Christian and practicing Jehovah’s Witness, recently saw an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times picturing a spoon holding the words, “A Taste of Judaism,” followed by the words “…Are you curious?”

Sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism, the ad offered three free weekly sessions “exploring the modern Reform Jewish perspective on living in today’s world,” and in boldfaced letters it stated, “For beginners, Jewish or not.”

“Or not” being the operative word.

In the past decade, as Jewish leaders grapple with how assimilation and intermarriage have affected the numbers of Jews, many Jewish organizations, temples and synagogues are increasing efforts to reach out to teach Judaism — both to secular and unaffiliated Jews, as well as to interfaith families.

“In-reach” and “Outreach” these efforts are called.

But this program, called “Taste of Judaism,” which has already reached more than 75,000 people in 450 synagogues around the country, is taking outreach further than the usual embrace of people who are born Jewish, or who are married to Jews. It deliberately and forcefully moves into the mainstream world, extending an open door to anyone who might just like to get to know more about becoming a Jew.

Some would argue this is an overlooked opportunity, while others see it as one more step away from halacha: Proselytizing traditionally has been seen as taboo.

“There are so many people who are interested in Judaism,” said Arlene Chernow, Los Angeles regional director of outreach and membership for the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). “Somehow it’s an urban legend that you’re supposed to turn them away. It is halacha, but it also says that you turn them away with one hand and welcome with another hand.”

Chernow has been with the URJ for 22 years and helped implement the pilot “taste” program 11 years ago.

“I think it really opens the Jewish community to people,” she said. “It gives people a sample for how Judaism can have a positive impact on their life”

In three two-hour sessions taught by a rabbi, the class attempts to provide an overview of the three major aspects of Judaism: God, Torah, Israel — or as it’s called here, “Spirituality, Ethics and Community.” Before teaching the class, each rabbi attends a training course, and then tailors it individually, using text study, discussion and handouts.

The program is not targeted solely at non-Jews. Unaffiliated Jews, Jews with no religious education, intermarried Jews and friends of Jews all have enrolled in the class.

“Our goal is large, meaningful, vibrant communities that are open to people who are born Jewish and open to people who aren’t born Jewish,” Chernow said.

And yet the new, very public push to promote the program in mainstream media around the country to all spiritual seekers, appears to turn on its head an age-old prohibition in the Jewish community. Which raises the questions: In modern-day America, where many ancient Jewish traditions no longer hold, should this one also be relegated to ancient times? In short, can Jews seek out converts? Can Jews proselytize?

These questions become particularly poignant this week, as we celebrate Shavuot, the commemoration of when Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai. This is the holiday that celebrates Jews-by-choice, and for it we read the Book of Ruth, the story of Judaism’s most celebrated convert of them all, from whom King David is a descendent.

Ruth’s story is seen by many as evidence that historically, Judaism, in fact, is meant to encourage conversion and early on even actively sought out people to join the faith.

“It is important to remember that Judaism began as a proselytizing religion,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, a Conservative rabbi and the head of the popular Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University (AJU) (formerly the University of Judaism). “The Book of Ruth is very pro-conversion. By the first century, according to Salo Baron, 10 percent of the Roman Empire had converted to Judaism. Proselytizing ceased when the church [in the fourth century] prohibited Jews from converting. Christians and later Islam [seventh century] prohibited Jews as well,” he said.

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, concurs with Weinberg’s account.

“Historically, we certainly know that Jews in very early times converted people — sometimes even forcibly converted people as recounted in the Bible in the book of Joshua,” Sarna said.

He points out that the Talmud includes people who have converted — and cites the major argument between Hillel and Shamai, where Hillel tells a potential convert that all of the Torah can be reduced to: “Do onto others as you would do onto yourself.” He says in the early Christian era, the early post-Temple era, there was a certain amount to conversion to Judaism.

“But what happens in the Diaspora is — especially as Jews become a minority — the Jewish community could get into great trouble when they were seen as proselytizing,” he said. “Once Christianity takes hold, whole Jewish community could be attacked because they were accused of Judaicizing.”

Jews made a “virtue” out of not seeking converts, arguing that the prohibition became a point of pride, a differentiation between Judaism and Christianity. In modern times, in countries where Jews feared for their rights, like in England and Germany, the fear was that proselytizing “would undo the bargain where they were allowed to remain.”

But this logic never really applied in America, which is founded on freedom of religious practice.

“American religion developed as a free market,” he said. “Naturally, when you have a free market in religion, there are plenty of Jews who say, ‘If they can convert me, I can convert them.’ From a logical point of view how can you be in a market and refuse to compete?” he asked. “Hillel didn’t seem to be worried when the proselyte came to him, so why should we?”

That’s exactly how Rabbi Ron Stern feels. Stern, the charismatic teacher of the “Taste of Judaism” class at Stephen S. Wise (where Vanderhope is participating) thinks the world should know how great Judaism is.

East meets West over Shabbat sushi


Akira Mizutani, a tall, willowy Japanese man who’s been living in Los Angeles for 12 years now, has long, flowing, jet black hair that hangs loose to his waist — and on this night, his mane is topped with a yarmulke.

Because tonight, like all Friday nights at the Glendale home he shares with his wife Liza Shtromberg, it is sushi-Shabbat dinner.

“Kosher sushi Shabbat” Shtromberg clarifies. “No eel or shellfish.”

Shtromberg, a successful Los Feliz-based jewelry designer and proprietor of the shop LS, was born in Moscow, moved to Israel with her family at age 9, then settled in Los Angeles at 16, where she finished high school at Hollywood High. She met Mizutani, now a landscaper, about a decade ago when he was a chef at the Japanese cafe Mako. Now they have a 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, who speaks three of the family’s four shared languages — English, Japanese and Hebrew (Russian is the one she’s not yet fluent in).

“We chose the name ‘Hannah’ because it’s both a Japanese, Hebrew and an American name,” Shtromberg says.

Then Hannah, a spirited child with bright, purposeful eyes and a raspy voice, chimes in, explaining how to pronounce her name in all three languages: “Hah-na in English, Chanah in Hebrew and Han-ah in Japanese,” she chirps.

Mizutani, the chef tonight — “all nights,” Shtromberg laughs — brings food to the table, which is cluttered with all the typical Shabbat accoutrements: sterling silver Kiddush cups, Israeli candlesticks that serve as a canvas for the Jerusalem cityscape, sweet kosher red wine. The women wear tallit draped over their heads and around their shoulders; Akira adjusts his yarmulke. There is no actual sushi being served tonight, as Mizutani didn’t make it to the fish market; but the meal is nonetheless authentically Japanese, one to satiate any sumo wrestler. There are bowls of steaming, sticky white rice; Chinese miso soup; Japanese Cabbage slaw with miso-sesame dressing, plates of Karagi and chicken Tonkatsu (rather than pork), as well as dried seaweed and Yaki Soba sauce.

“Akira was neutral in the religion department, so we never had a conflict over how to raise Hannah,” Shtromberg says.

“Not neutral,” Mizutani says. “Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah — I like it for the tradition, not the religion.”

“So Hanna’s being raised a Reform Jew. She’s Japanese and Jewish — she’s American,” Shtromberg says.

After Hannah was born, the Mizutani-Shtromberg household made it a point to gather for Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

“I wanted Hannah to have some taste of Jewish tradition; and now, even if I’m out of town, she’ll say on Friday, ‘Oh, it’s Shabbat!’ It’s become part of her consciousness,” Shtromberg says. “And it’s a way of bringing the family together. I wanted my brother to come and see Hannah regularly. But he’d really come for Akira’s food!”

“Mama, can we do the prayers now?” pleads Hannah, who’s presiding at the head of the table with a tiny juice-filled Kiddush cup in hand.

We light the candles, cover our eyes and say “amen.” Then Shtromberg leads the blessings over the bread and the wine. Before digging into the food with our chopsticks and/or silverwear however, there is one last blessing. We put our hands together, and we chant in unison:

“Itedakemas”.

“That’s ‘let’s eat’ in Japanese,” Mizutani explains.

“It’s ‘betavon’ in Hebrew,” Shtromberg says.

“What’s ‘betavon’ mean, mama?” Hannah asks.

“Itedakemas!” Shtromberg says.

Laughter all around.

After dinner, Mizutani clears the table and settles in to watch the Lakers; Shtromberg curls up on the couch to enjoy the herbal tea she brought back from her travels in Barcelona. This is a Shabbat ritual, she explains.

“It’s my official time out, the only time throughout the week that, no matter what’s going on, I have time to relax,” she says.

As for Hannah, whether she likes it or not, it’s time for her ufuro, her bath.

For more information on LS, visit

Conversion for those raised Jewish? Rabbis address unique obstacles for patrilineal converts


When David Levine stepped into the mikvah last year, he believed he was affirming what he already was, not converting to something new.

“I was raised Jewish, was always told I was Jewish,” said the 35-year-old, who did not want his real name printed. “I went to Jewish camps, even had a bar mitzvah.”

But when Levine joined a Conservative congregation after his marriage, the rabbi told him that because his mother was not Jewish, he needed a legal conversion. That was hard to hear, he said, even though the rabbi was “very sensitive” and moved him quickly through the study process.

Levine views his mikvah experience — the final step in conversion — as very different than that of a person with no Jewish parents or grandparents.

“I felt Jewish all along,” he said. “I didn’t see it as a break with the past. It was just sort of a continuum.”

Rabbis, especially Conservative rabbis, are seeing more and more of these cases: young adults with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, people who have spent their lives in the Jewish community, coming forward to seek conversion. Rabbis and candidates alike say it requires different sensibilities and a different approach.

“The conversion process is the same, but the emotional journey is very different,” said Rabbi Avis Miller of Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, a longtime advocate of greater outreach to the adult children of intermarried parents. “They already feel part of the Jewish family.”

According to national figures, approximately 1.5 million Americans have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. More than 360,000 of them are between the ages of 18 and 29, the product of the first big surge of intermarriage in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Many of those young adults with non-Jewish mothers grew up in the Reform movement, which since 1983 has accepted patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent. In earlier generations they may have been excluded from the Jewish community; now, like Levine, they are raised Jewish.

As adults, some decide to undergo formal conversion. Some seek out Orthodox rabbis. Some ask Reform rabbis, although conversion is not needed for Reform recognition.

But the largest numbers are found in the Conservative movement, which requires conversion of people with non-Jewish mothers.

Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet congregation in Chicago sees many more of these cases than he did 20 years ago. He attributes that to “an entire generation growing up under Reform auspices.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, said they are most often people who “grew up very involved with Judaism and the Jewish people, who think of themselves as Jewish.”

As a result, he said, “we try very hard, with great sensitivity and compassion, to work with them.”

Each conversion candidate meets with a sponsoring rabbi, who ascertains the candidate’s Jewish knowledge, observance level and commitment to the Jewish people, Meyers explained. Those with strong enough Jewish backgrounds may not have to study much, if at all. For them, the conversion “is more of a technicality,” one Conservative rabbi explained.

Because their conversion experience is different, so is the terminology used to describe what they are going through.

Miller is one of a growing number of rabbis who use the word “affirmation.”

Rabbi Stuart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills said he’s done several affirmations and is currently overseeing three this year.

“If someone was raised as a Jew, in terms of their spirit and soul, I accept them as Jewish. Affirmation is just formalizing of that,” he said.

Siegel prefers to call it a “completion.” “I tell them, as far as I’m concerned you’re Jewish. But every people has its definition of citizenship,” he said. “It’s not a judgment; it’s a formality. We want to celebrate your Jewishness and complete it from a legal perspective,” he said.

Sensitivity is needed, these rabbis say, because many such adult children of intermarried parents resent having their Jewishness questioned.

“They say, ‘But we’re Jews! We’re not converting!'” said Rabbi Stu Kelman of Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. “I understand what they’re saying, but since matrilineality is a Conservative movement standard, we have to take a strong but compassionate stance.

“The initial reaction is one of resentment. Often I end up working with people to overcome the resentment before we even begin talking about conversion,” he said.

Many confront the problem while preparing for a key lifecycle event such as marriage or a bar mitzvah. That can lead to great emotional upset.

“Here’s a person who sees himself as Jewish, who grew up with all things Jewish, and now at what should be the happiest day of their lives, they find themselves under question,” Siegel said.

Rebecca Goldstein (not her real name) had plenty of anger. Goldstein, 31, is still seething from the rejection she felt as the daughter of a non-Jewish mother whenever she stepped outside her Reform community.

She first ran into it was when she was 19, when her Jewish boyfriend wouldn’t introduce her to his grandmother. She experienced it again the year she spent in Israel on a student program — Israelis would ask whether she was planning to convert.

“It was a weight I had to carry during the entire program,” Goldstein said. “I felt the burden of having to prove myself more than people ‘born Jewish,'” she said.

Goldstein converted while she was pregnant — not because she wanted to, but to spare her child what she went through.

“I didn’t want my daughter to have to face that duality,” she said. “I converted, but resented that I had to do it.”

“This is a problem the Jewish community has created for itself, and those of us who can help have the responsibility to do so,” said Rabbi Carol Levitan, program director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, referring to the divide between those Jewish streams that recognize patrilineal Jews and those that do not. “When it’s a person who clearly identifies as Jewish and is knowledgeable, I’m eager to make it happen without making them jump through hoops.”

Festival of Arts celebrates a decade of Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership


In the mid-1990s, following the Oslo peace accords and with the prospect of a thriving Israeli economy, the debate raged in Jewish philanthropic circles about what might change if Israel “was going to grow up and not be a poor cousin,” said Lois Weinsaft, senior vice president at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who oversees Israeli and other overseas programs.

In addition to the “sense that they didn’t need us,” Weinsaft said, there was another factor at work — data revealing the high incidence of intermarriage in the Jewish community outside Israel. The increase in assimilation led many Jewish leaders to fear that Diaspora Jewry and Israel “could drift apart.”

The combination of these two trends sparked the creation of programs like the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with a celebration that focuses on Israeli art. A four-pronged exchange between the two cities, the partnership “brings together the brain power” in the worlds of culture, education, health and human services and economics to work on mutually beneficial programs dedicated to a “shared Jewish identity and destiny.”

Weinsaft pointed out that the partnership, founded in 1997, ushered in a “new paradigm” in Israeli-Diaspora relations, in that it operated on a people-to-people basis, rather than the past philosophy of “you do yours, we’ll do ours.” The norm had been for Jews just to write checks or invite performers from Israel to the United States, but rarely was there any true interaction between the Israelis and members of the Jewish community in Los Angeles.

The 10th anniversary kicked off earlier this year with an exhibit running through April 13 at The Jewish Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard featuring the photographs of Israeli American artist Elinor Milchan, who captured images of Israeli troops and civilians during last summer’s war with Hezbollah. Other highlights of the 10th anniversary will include an art lecture series at Otis College with Smadar Sheffi, art critic for Haaretz, and Dalia Levin, director of the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as an artist-in-residence program with Israeli photographer Barry Frydlender at the 18th Street Arts Center (see accompanying stories).

But Weinsaft stresses that the 10th anniversary goes beyond just fine art and culture.

In terms of other arts, the partnership’s Master Class in Filmmaking will be held in Los Angeles for the first time this July. The Master Class, in which Hollywood filmmakers train students in an intensive one-week workshop, has led to documentaries like “39 Pounds of Love” and “Favela Rising,” both of which were short-listed for the best documentary Oscar in recent years.

Past participants have included Lynn Roth, who helped shepherd “39 Pounds of Love” and “Keep Not Silent” through the production process; Marc Platt, “Wicked” producer, former Universal Pictures production chief and honorary chair of the program; Uli Edel, who directed “Last Exit to Brooklyn”; and Randal Kleiser, director of “Grease.”

Building on the success of the renowned cinema Master Class, the partnership introduced an opera Master Class last year. Omar Krook, a first tenor with the L.A. Opera, called the experience of studying and performing in Israel “one of the greatest things I ever did in music.”

Krook, who is not Jewish, was somewhat bemused at the lack of male opera singers in Israel.

“Studying opera is not really popular for men in Israel,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a machismo thing, if men are stigmatized in some way.”

The program is an exchange with the Young Artists program at the New Israeli Opera; it took place over three weeks and included Master Classes, agent auditions, Olympic fencing and Japanese movement instruction. Krook, who along with two other male opera singers was part of the “maiden voyage” of the Master Class, said that were it not for a commitment with L.A. Opera, he would be leaving this month to do the program again.

In addition to bringing back the Master Class in opera, the partnership will be launching a choreography Master Class this summer.

Due to the obvious connections to Los Angeles’ entertainment community, cultural programs are a “standout” of the partnership, Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said.

Yet Weinsaft said that the education component “has emerged as a jewel in the crown.”

Donors to The Jewish Federation have expressed particular interest in education, which has led to the twinning programs, in which 18 Tel Aviv schools and 18 Los Angeles schools exchange students.

On the L.A. side, students of course learn more about Israel in their curriculum. In Tel Aviv, “the surprise is it’s created a revolution in Jewish identity issues,” Weinsaft said, noting that Tel Aviv schools are almost uniformly secular while Jewish schools in Los Angeles tend to be more religious.

The “unintended consequences” are that Israelis now get a “different view of Judaism”; for instance, they get a chance to participate in “a non-coercive, pluralistic” fashion in celebrating the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, while also being exposed to kosher households, which are not particularly prevalent in Tel Aviv.

“It’s not CNN. It’s not textbook. It’s real Israel,” said Weinsaft excitedly. “It’s unvarnished Jews together.”

Health and human services has also had some successes, particularly in linking Holocaust survivors. A few years ago, two cousins named Esther, one Israeli, one American, were reunited. Neither survivor of the Shoah knew that the other was alive.

More recently, the partnership brought a dozen experts from the United States to talk to Knesset members and staff of non-government organizations about poverty and food issues. The partnership has taken an “integrated” approach, so that policies arising from this program impact not only those living in Tel Aviv but also those in “the former Soviet Union and on Fairfax,” according to program coordinators.

The fate of the economic program is less clear after a respite of a few years. Weinsaft said that “Boston and Haifa have been much more successful in this area.”

Overall, the partnership, which began as a small program with a “big idea” 10 years ago, has ended up “revamping” the relationship between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry.

“It’s an incredible playground,” Weinsaft said.

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