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.

Stop sugarcoating intermarriage


Not many years ago, it was taken as axiomatic that intermarriage constitutes a significant threat to Jewish continuity. For individual families, we understood that more often than not,
the children of the intermarried would be raised as non-Jews. And since intermarrying Jews have fewer children, and because most of their children won’t identify as Jews, intermarriage implied fewer Jews in the next generation.

The community responded admirably, albeit inadequately, to this challenge. For many good reasons, it expanded funding for day schools and trips to Israel. Synagogues and Jewish Community Centers (JCC) became more welcoming and accepting of intermarried families. It supported a variety of “Jewish outreach” efforts aimed at bringing families closer to Jews and Judaism by teaching Jewish practices and values. In contrast, “interfaith outreach” seeks to make all mixed-married couples feel more accepted, even when they choose to celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays in the same household.

Social scientists, myself included, have charted — and implicitly celebrated — the growing and exhilarating diversity of Jewish identities, communities and innovation. Since the early days of American Jewish sociology and its founder, Marshall Sklare, of blessed memory, we have documented the rises, falls and rises of Jewish identity over the life course. Jewish identities today are more varied, fluid and mobile than ever.

But with this said, we need to recognize that as a group, intermarried Jews are far less active in Jewish life — however one measures it — than inmarried Jews. The large gaps cover number of Jewish friends, raising one’s kids as Jews, belonging to synagogues and JCCs, living with Jewish neighbors, attending worship services, celebrating Jewish holidays, giving one’s children a Jewish education, caring about Israel, giving to Jewish causes and their own assessment of the importance of being Jewish.

When we ask intermarried Jews, “how important is being Jewish to you?” as a group they score far lower than inmarried Jews.

Some news from the field has been encouraging. But for every report of an apparent success, we have an overall pattern of, let’s call it “less than success.” Sure the Baltimore Jewish population study reports that 62 percent of children in intermarried homes are being raised as Jews, but the rate in San Diego is 21 percent and apparently less than 40 percent nationwide. Just 15 percent to 20 percent of intermarried couples are synagogue members, as compared with 60 percent of inmarried couples.

While Jewish religious engagement is steady or rising, Jewish connections and “collective identity” trends are clearly declining. While the inmarried are leading more intensive Jewish lives, the intermarried as a group remain much less engaged.
Every time we hear of an intermarried child who maintains an active Jewish life, we must remember that the more Jewishly engaged — people reading this column, for example — raise children with the best chances of maintaining Jewish continuity, even when they out-marry.

Thus, some Jewishly engaged parents assume that the wonderful experiences of their Jewishly committed intermarried children must be a sign that we’re “winning the battle.” In reality, most intermarried Jews come from weak Jewish educational backgrounds, often with only one Jewish parent.

Some outreach advocates say intermarriage is a fact, feeding the fatalistic view that there’s nothing that can be done to influence the rate. Yet there’s much that is being done to affect the rate.

Some sociologists claim we can find evidence of high rates of Jewish commitment among the intermarried as a group, if only we measured properly. But on no measures do the intermarried outscore the inmarried.

Some speculate that because Jewish identities are fluid, or because the intermarried have become so numerous, the intermarried as a group may well move toward significant Jewish engagement. Yet no study shows the gap narrowing. Jewish identities are changing — but the basic import of intermarriage is not. San Francisco, for example, reports that from 1986 to 2004, observance patterns by the inmarried climbed, while those for the intermarried fell, further widening the gap between inmarried and intermarried.

The Steinhardt Foundation/Jewish Life Network published my study, Tough neighborhoods, hard times feed cycle of poverty

Abusive clergy; Bibi is a realist, not a racist; The ‘un-Jewish Journal’


Abusive Clergy

I attended a Jewish day school in the Midwest (“Don’t Kid Yourself,” Jan. 12). From the time I was 9 until 15, I was sexually molested by my Torah/history/Judaica/ ethics teacher who was also a trained cantor and a Shabbat-observantJew. I was molested in the boiler room of the school and in his car.

There was no one to tell, and as a child, I didn’t think anyone would believe me. Every day I lived in fear, because my Jewish school, located in a synagogue, was not a safe place.

He destroyed my life by making me feel less than a piece of dirt. Today, I have chronic illness which in some part was caused by this massive trauma to my body and soul. My ability to trust people is severely limited.

Child sexual abuse knows no boundaries, and our clergy, the individuals in whom we have placed our trust, must accept that this behavior of abuse is evil and unacceptable. The scared child is the one who needs our protection and support.
Name Withheld

There is actually something more cruel and humiliating than being sexually abused. It is the perpetration of community denial fostered by our rabbinic leaders (“Reining in Abuse,” Jan. 12).

Denial of the existence and the extent of child sexual abuse isolates the victim from comfort, help and treatment. Trauma, by definition, lacks the coherence of words, but when there is no one to listen, the horror is magnified.

Without the understanding that sexual abuse is perpetrated even by Jewish clergy, there is no way to stop the perpetrator and warn the community. You enable and empower the perpetrators by disallowing attention to the victims’ voices and thereby become responsible for the next victim.

If the crime doesn’t exist, then it is the victim cum accuser who is the culprit making up allegations against esteemed people in the community. The community treats them as the culprits, and the victims now feel guilty.

There is no safety for our children as long as you ally yourselves with the perpetrators of abuse. When you keep these events secret and don’t warn the community, you give these clergy perpetrators free reign. You have no idea of the permanent damage they create in innocent children – while our rabbinic leaders stand idly by making the conscious choice to be deaf to their cries.

Ian Russ
Vice Chair
California Board of Behavioral Sciences

Thanks for another cover story addressing issues of sexual impropriety and abuse by our clergy and others. Let’s continue exploring care for both our injured and injuring parties (both need our loving assist) through dialoguing, compassionate therapy and educating awareness.

After The Jewish Journal’s cover story months ago, I gently offered (nonsexual) tantra yoga instruction — an oft-taught ancient path that redirects sexual energies toward God consciousness — to a rabbi sentenced to prison for child porn.

Uninterested in learning, he left me puzzled and frustrated that this perfect tool goes unrecognized and unused, relegating us instead to cycles of ignorance, shame, denial and abuse. There are several of us yogis in Los Angeles of Jewish heritage: Please, let us help.

Marcia Singer
Woodland Hills

Not a Racist

What Larry Derfner defines as racism, Benjamin Netanyahu regards as necessary for Israel’s survival (“Netanyahu Ranks High as Racist Demagogue,” Jan. 19). He insists this war is far from over. Because the former prime minister says the things we don’t want to hear, but deep down we know to be true, he is condemned.

He’s not a racist; he’s a survivalist. Israel lives in the thick of the growing Jihad menace and will need to defend itself in the coming months and years like it has never done before. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, presided over the most dangerous time in Israeli history, the first 10 days of the state’s existence in 1948. He would roll over in his grave if he knew what kind of peril Israel faces in the near future.

Its time we as Jews realize our responsibility. We must face this evil down as a community and stand as one, because not to is to face the unthinkable.

Larry Hart
West Hills

Children of Intermarriage

Once more The Jewish Journal proves again that it should be called the un-Jewish Journal. The article, “Jewish Parent + Christian Parent = Jewish Kids,” (Jan. 19) doesn’t once mention the word “halacha,” which apparently is an anathema to The Journal.

The article completely omits that if the Jewish parent is the father, then the children are only considered Jewish in the eyes of the Reform movement. According to the Orthodox and Conservative movements, they are not Jewish.

The article also fails to state what would happen if the girls wanted to marry someone who is Orthodox or Conservative. They would then have to convert.

By prolonging this, the parents are putting more heartache on their children who consider themselves Jewish already but in actuality are not. Instead of the big metsieh that the article portrays of “raising the children Jewish” (Jewish children don’t attend church services or celebrate Xmas) it should have gone in depth into the consequences of such actions.

If I wanted to read a paper that is a shill for the Reform movement, I could subscribe to the Reform movement’s own publication directly.

Morton Resnick
Oxnard

Muslim-Jewish Dialogue

The Journal is right to devote significant attention to Muslim-Jewish dialogue and pioneers like Salam Al-Marayati and Daniel Sokatch (“Try, Try Again,” Jan. 19). Even though many of us may disagree on how best to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian morass, Muslims and Jews share theological, legal and ritual concerns that differ significantly from those of the Protestant Christian and secular majorities in America.

Progressive Jewish Alliance’s (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) cooperation in 2002 and 2003 during the roundup of Iranian immigrants with visa irregularities speaks to our shared political concerns.

Jewish parent + Christian parent = Jewish kids


In December, Patty Lombard and her husband, Bill Simon, took their two daughters to Florida to celebrate Christmas with her family, as they do every year. The children received presents, strung popcorn and decorated the tree — a Yuletide tradition they would never allow in their Los Angeles home.

That’s because the girls are Jewish, just like their father. When Lombard, a Catholic, and Simon married 18 years ago, they decided to raise their children in one faith: Judaism.

Such arrangements reflect a growing trend among interfaith families that feature a Jewish partner and a non-Jewish partner who isn’t planning to convert. And despite the Jewish community’s decades-long panic that shrinking population figures are a direct result of intermarriage, recent studies and anecdotal evidence are finding that interfaith families could be more of an asset than an enemy.

Many interfaith couples are raising their children to be Jews, even without conversion of the non-Jewish parent.

One reason for this radical shift in understanding: the release late last year of a new, groundbreaking study.

In Boston, the majority of children among interfaith households — almost 60 percent, far above the national average — are being raised as Jews, according to the 2005 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the central planning and fundraising arm of Boston’s Jewish community. The study was carried out by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

Many observers say that the results of this study are due in large part to the Boston federation’s intense outreach efforts to interfaith families — more so than to independent decisions within the families themselves. Some suggest that communities that replicate the Boston federation’s efforts can bring about similar results.

Another study about the “December Dilemma” by online magazine InterfaithFamily.com showed that 75 percent of interfaith couples with children say they are raising them Jewish, as compared to 33 percent reported in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001. The InterfaithFamily.com survey covered a small, self-selecting sampling. The Web site reports that 759 people responded to the survey in 2006, nearly twice as many as had the previous year. The survey also explores how interfaith families celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, as well as what exactly those celebrations mean.

For example, while 44 percent of respondents said they planned to decorate a Christmas tree in their homes, only about 5 percent planned to tell their children the Christmas story. By contrast, among those same families, 99 percent of those said they were also lighting menorahs, and 63 percent of those were going to tell the Chanukah story. In other words, most of these families considered their Christmas celebrations to be secular (79 percent, according to the survey), while only 23 percent said that their Chanukah celebrations are secular).

These studies do not offer not hard evidence with any single conclusion, but the results do indicate that intermarriage will not destroy the Jewish community, as once was thought. What emerges from speaking to interfaith families is how committed many non-Jewish parents are to raising their child or children Jewish, even when they themselves have no intentions of converting.

Lombard was raised Catholic. She went to parochial schools through high school and attended Mass regularly.

“I’m not a lapsed Catholic,” she said. “I still identify myself as a Catholic.”

But Lombard and her husband did not want to make religion a deal-breaker.

“I didn’t want to say I can’t marry you because you’re not the same religion as me, because that seemed crazy,” she said.

So they agreed to raise the children Jewish — although she admitted that at the time, she didn’t exactly know what she was getting into: “Initially you think, ‘I really love this person, and I want to make it work,’ and then you think, ‘Oh my god, what did I do?'”

Lombard began taking classes at Temple Israel of Hollywood to learn about Judaism, but in general she said she lets her husband lead the family in matters of Jewish identity. On Christmas, Simon doesn’t want a Christmas tree in their house.

“I don’t care at all, it’s one less thing to put away,” Lombard said.

For her, Christmas is about spending time with her parents.

“As long as my parents are around, that’s all that matters. I feel in some ways that Christmas has very little meaning,” she said.

Lombard believes celebrating Christmas and attending church with their grandparents doesn’t make her daughters any less Jewish.

“They feel like they’re very much part of that holiday,” she said. “Just like my sister’s family would participate in Passover — it’s a kind of acceptance of where everyone is at.”

Neither does having a non-Jewish mother change the reality. When her older daughter, Emily, was younger, she said, “Oh mommy aren’t you sorry you aren’t one of us?”

But now, at 13, having just celebrated her bat mitzvah with all sides of her family, Emily understands more.

Lombard said she never felt the need to convert: “I felt like I was doing enough; the agreement to raise them Jewish was enough.”

She said it helps that about one-third of the families in her congregation are interfaith and that Rabbi John Rosove, the senior rabbi, is very accepting. “He’s always done his best to make me feel like I was a part of this place … he never made me feel like I had to convert.”

The Lombard-Simon family is evidence that a positive atmosphere toward interfaith couples can help bring the children into the fold, as the Boston study indicates. This year, Boston’s Jewish community invested $321,000 — 1.5 percent of its annual budget — into outreach for interfaith families and individuals, for programs run by the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, the Reform and Conservative movements and other agencies.

“If you make the effort to be welcoming then it pays off,” said Ed Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com. “Why is that happening in Boston? What could Los Angeles do to emulate Boston’s success?”

Big Ideas for the Jewish Future: The Boomerang Effect


Don’t write them off yet. They are in their 40s and 50s. They are affluent, highly educated, and full of energy. They are unaffiliated. And they are suddenly asking big questions.

These days Jewish funders have all but written unaffiliated Boomers off for dead. Of course the focus on Gen-Xers and Ys is critical. The National Jewish Population Survey sounded an alarm about intermarriage and disaffection that no Jewish leader can afford to ignore. On the other hand, a myopic obsession with NextGen Judaism would be a huge mistake to make.

Every seven seconds another Boomer turns 50. Boomers may have walked away from Judaism years ago, but right now we have a rare opportunity to reach them as they begin to ponder midlife and consider the mark they are making on this world. They are unfulfilled at work. The money they’ve earned hasn’t brought them meaning. They have seen people they love become ill or die. They’ve watched marriages crumble. When they look in the mirror they are noticing new wrinkles and gray hairs; when they look in their souls they are noticing a new restlessness and a yearning for connection to something sacred and timeless.

Some may argue that Boomers searching for meaning can simply turn to the structures that already exist — the synagogue, the adult education program, the JCC. But the Boomer I am describing here is no different from the 20-year-old we are now trying so hard to reach through a host of new, hip, creative, cutting-edge programs. These Boomers have not been inspired by the institutions of Jewish life. That’s why they left in the first place. They are bored in temple. A surgeon I know explains the problem this way: “I grew up on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Why should anyone expect me to be inspired by Jewish opera or Chasidic tunes?” This surgeon is not a lazy Jew, and he’s not a shallow Jew either. He is a starving Jew looking to be challenged intellectually and nourished spiritually.

Retailers know that Boomers represent a huge consumer market. That’s why the Gap introduced relaxed-fit jeans. And it’s why the cosmetics industry is making billions on anti-aging products. Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project, a market research and consulting firm offers this advice: “If you have a product or service or company that can help Boomers fulfill (their) quest for vitality in any aspect, you’ll be successful.”

I stumbled on this question accidentally. Five years ago, a colleague of mine, a rabbi in New York, called me to see if I could check out an organization his 25-year-old brother had become involved in. The following Sunday morning I found myself at Agape, a nondenominational church in Culver City led by the charismatic Rev. Michael Beckwith. There were 2,000 people there on their feet pouring out their hearts to God.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss as I took in this powerful experience. Why can’t Judaism move thousands like this? Then I read the names of the Agape prayer leaders and was shaken to see so many Jewish names. Agape is attracting Jews who believe deeply in God, who want to pray, but who cannot find God in a synagogue.

After that morning at Agape I began interviewing unaffiliated Jewish seekers. I wanted to know what moved them. I wanted to understand why they would go to a church or a Zen center or to yoga, but not to synagogue. In response to these conversations, a group of eight of us founded Nashuva, an outreach organization that seeks to draw young, disaffected Jews back to a soulful Judaism that is committed to social justice.

Nashuva has struck a chord with 20-somethings. But to our surprise, a new sub-population, one we had not targeted, surfaced in our midst: Boomerangs — unaffiliated Jewish Boomers in their 40s and 50s who were raised as Jews, became disaffected early on, and for the first time in their adult lives are looking for ways to return to Jewish life. Although at Nashuva we continue to inspire and activate Jews in their 20s and 30s, enthusiastic Boomerangs have also become integral to our organization.

People reaching midlife who dive into a new passion usually become groundbreakers. The great scholar Rabbi Akiba was 40 when he began to study Torah. Philanthropist Les Wexner was in his late 40s when he set out to solve the problem of uneducated Jewish leaders. Michael Steinhardt was the same age when he founded the Jewish Life Network. Look what American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger has been able to achieve in the Jewish arena after a life of public service in the secular world. So why shouldn’t there be a Wexner fellowship for potential leaders in their 40s and 50s? Why isn’t there a Makor for Boomers? Why can’t there be a Jewish service corps for Boomers?

So many innovations in Jewish programming today are being created by Boomers for the next generation. What would happen if these same Boomers tried to create cutting-edge programs to inspire their own generation of unaffiliated Jews — their own brothers and sisters, their own colleagues at work, their own neighbors down the street. It may not be a sexy pursuit, but it certainly is a worthy one.

Boomerangs are hungry, and they have much to offer the Jewish community if we can inspire them and draw them back in. Alongside all the worthy projects that are now surfacing to capture the imagination of Gen-X and Gen-Y, we need to remember that Boomers are poised now to return to the passion and idealism of their youth. If we want to be a vital community we ought to invest serious time and money into launching creative and innovative programs and services that will welcome Boomers back. A generation that was inspired by JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King Jr., may very well be ready to heed a new call.

Boomerangs will bring with them not only their skills and passion, but billions of dollars. They have accumulated enormous wealth on their own, and they are now about to inherit their parents’ wealth as well. Is it wise to neglect them?

Conejo and West Valley shuls rate high with newcomers


For a Jew who doesn’t belong to a synagogue, the West San Fernando and Conejo valleys are good places to shop around. A new report from the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) gives a snapshot of the community as a whole and an assessment of its ability to react to newcomers, including interfaith couples, racial minorities and sexual minorities.
 
The JOI presented results from “The Jewish Outreach Scan of the West Valley/Conejo Valley” during a well-attended Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance board meeting at The New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Oct. 4. The survey was funded by the United Jewish Communities’ Emerging Communities Project.
 
Last summer, the JOI anonymously e-mailed and called 11 synagogues and four community agencies in the Conejo and West Valley, assessed the effectiveness of local Web sites and interviewed 30 Jewish communal professionals. The organization has conducted similar surveys in communities such as San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta, Louisville, Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
 
The West Valley/Conejo Valley drew a 77 percent favorable response rate, placing it second overall behind Ottawa’s 86 percent.
 
“The biggest surprise was … how well we did,” said Carol Koransky, Valley Alliance executive director. “But it’s true, as was pointed out to us, that doing 77 percent means there are 23 percent that aren’t being reached.”
 
According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 44 percent of Jewish adults are unaffiliated, while 28 percent are moderately affiliated. With the intermarriage rate currently hovering at about 50 percent, and with only about 30 percent of interfaith families raising their children Jewish, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, JOI’s executive director and former vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, said it’s important for synagogues to review their outreach strategies.
 
“Eighty-five percent of interfaith families are not affiliating with the Jewish community,” Olitzky said. “Unless they engage the Jewish community, it’s unlikely they’ll raise Jewish children.”
 
The scan did not compare response rates of area synagogues or agencies to one another. However, Olitzky recounted one anonymous phone call placed to a synagogue. When a receptionist told a caller to check back after the New Year regarding an “Introduction to Judaism” class for his non-Jewish spouse, the caller asked if the receptionist meant Jan. 1.
 
“The person on the phone said, ‘Honey, when I say the New Year, I’m talking about the Jewish New Year,'” Olitzky said.
 
In addition, the receptionist never asked for the caller’s contact information.
 
According to Olitzky, one of the biggest obstacles the Jewish community must overcome is its kiruv mentality, a Hebrew term that means “to bring near.” He said many synagogues wait for unaffiliated Jews to come knocking. Instead, Olitzky suggested that congregations think outside the shul and engage in what JOI calls “public space Judaism.”
 
“We spend most of our time in a secular environment,” Olitzky said. “We need to create programs where people will stumble over the Jewish community.”
 
Founded in 1988 as a vest-pocket organization for City University sociology professor Egon Mayer to conduct studies, New York-based JOI has expanded its mission over the last 10 years and now features a variety of outreach programming, including interfaith inclusion efforts and surveys of North American Jewish communities.
 
Prior to last Passover, a Conservative congregation in Northern California took part in a pre-holiday JOI program called Passover in the Aisles. Congregants spent time near a matzah display in a Palo Alto Albertson’s, talking with unaffiliated Jews shopping for their family seders.
 
Olitzky suggests this kind of activity can draw in those who might not come to a synagogue on their own; other suggestions are holding readings in bookstores, setting up tables with kid-friendly activities in front of a Target or Staples during back-to-school shopping or holding menorah lightings in malls the way Chabad does. “Why not take what Chabad does well and copy it?” he suggested.
 
Temple Beth Haverim has been doing just that for the last 10 years, holding menorah lightings at The Promenade at Westlake.
 
“We’ve just been providing it as a service for the community,” said Rabbi Gershon Johnson, who added that the Agoura Hills Conservative synagogue hadn’t looked on the activity as an outreach opportunity. He said the congregation would be more proactive this year about collecting names and phone numbers from unaffiliated Jews attending the event.

Olitzky said that adopting a retail mentality can help get people in the door, especially advertising membership discounts and free specials.
 
Debbie Green, vice president of membership at Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, said her synagogue drew in 40 unaffiliated Jews with an outreach program that advertised special no-cost High Holiday tickets. But she said follow-up has been a problem for Aliyah.
“One month later, we need to be telephoning them and offering free tickets to something else,” she said. “We’re one-time-event oriented, and we need to get beyond that.”
 

 

For more information about the Jewish Outreach Institute, visit www.joi.org.

Happy Rosh Hashanah: swastika flags fly over SoCal, Florida highways


Swastikas were found flying from highway overpasses in Los Angeles and northern San Diego County, as well as in Orlando, Fla., just before the Jewish New Year.Calls began coming in to law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles at around 5:45 a.m. on Sept. 22, saying flags with swastikas were hanging from the overcrossing between Balboa and White Oak boulevards over the eastbound Ventura Freeway, according to California Highway Patrol officials.
 
“Obviously, they’re offensive, and a huge distraction,” CHP Officer Leland Tang said in a televised news report.
 
Flags also were reported at the Escondido Avenue overpass of Highway 78 in Vista, near San Diego.
 
The flags were taken down soon after they were discovered. Jewish leaders have denounced the acts.
 
— Staff and Wire reports
 
Steven Windmueller to serve as interim Dean of Hebrew Union College
 
Steven F. Windmueller, a scholar who has held several prominent positions in local Jewish organizations over the years, has been named interim dean at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
 
Windmueller previously served as director of HUC-JIR’s School of Jewish Communal Service and said he will remain in the new position for an undetermined period. During his tenure, he said, he hopes to tighten HUC-JIR’s links with other institutions of higher education, as well as the federations and the Union for Reform Judaism. Windmueller also hopes to grow HUC-JIR’s Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation.
 
“I want to reposition HUC in the constellation of the Western Jewish scene,” Windmueller said. “I want a higher profile, greater engagement with the Reform movement and a larger voice on Jewish life, whether it’s intermarriage or how to welcome new Jews into the community.”
 
Meanwhile, Windmuller has just returned the prestigious Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission’s John Allen Buggs Award given him in 1995 for his strong record in intergroup relations. He gave back the prize last week to protest the commission’s decision to bestow the honor upon Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California and senior adviser to the national Muslim Public Affairs Council, who has been outspokenly critical of Israel. Much of Los Angeles’ organized Jewish community opposed Hathout’s being given the award.
 
“The commission didn’t look for a candidate who could find common ground but rather chose one who was divisive by his actions and words,” Windmueller said.
 
Windmueller replaces Dr. Lewis Barth, who served twice as HUC-JIR dean and whose nine-year tenure ended in June. HUC-JIR has 525 graduate students at campuses in Jerusalem, New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, with 120 students here. The educational and intellectual center of Reform Judaism, HUC-JIR trains rabbis, cantors, communal and educational professionals. Locally, about 650 USC undergraduates also take courses at the school in subjects ranging from Holocaust studies to Zionism.
 
During his 11 years as HUC-JIR’s director of Jewish communal service, Windmueller established several programs that he said were designed to deepen students’ educational experience. He helped create the “New York Jewish Experience,” a biannual program that takes Los Angeles’ Jewish communal students to New York to meet with national Jewish leaders and to visit landmarks of the American Jewish experience, including synagogues. In 2001, Windmueller oversaw the creation of a program that sends students to Germany to study contemporary and historical Jewish life in the country.

Under his direction, HUC also increased its cooperation with USC and added several dual-degree communal studies graduate programs with the university, including in business administration, communications management and public arts management.
 
“He combines two remarkable skills,” said Rabbi Alan Henkin, a sometime HUC-JIR lecturer and regional director of Pacific Southwest Council for the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization for 80 local Reform synagogues. “He’s able to keep his eye on the big picture, even as he attends to the small details of running the school.”
 
Windmueller, 64, received a doctorate in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania. He began his professional life at the American Jewish Committee, before moving to the Greater Albany Jewish Federation — now known as the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York — where he served as a director. Heading west in 1985, he served as head of the local Jewish Community Relations Committee for a decade.
 
— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

High Holiday party raises funds for Israel
 
The war in Israel may be over, but fundraising efforts in Los Angeles are not.On Saturday, Sept. 16, a party at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood raised $22,000 for Israel through the Israel Help Fund, which was started by the Council of Israeli Communities (CIC). The party was jointly put on by the CIC, DJ Eyal Productions, DJ Ziv Productions and Sababa parties. Approximately 1,100 people — primarily Israelis — attended the $20-a-ticket event, with two floors of dancing, one on the roof.
 
“Sitting back and watching what was going on during the war, we felt compelled to do something,” said LiAmi Lawrence, head of Sababa parties, which generally holds for-profit parties.
 
But this time everyone was willing to donate their services for free, including seven Djs: DJ Eyal, DJ Udi, DJ Avi, DJ Ziv, DJ Titus, DJ Shay and DJ George, who drove in from Las Vegas. Lawrence said that DJ Eyal had already booked the Fonda for that date for his own High Holiday party but donated the club and the party for the cause. Many people who couldn’t attend the party sent in checks.
 
“I was touched and inspired by the generosity of the people,” Lawrence said.The money will primarily go to rebuilding Ziv Hospital in Tsfat and to helping firefighters in the north.
 
Donations can still be made to the Israel Help Fund, 16027 Ventura Blvd, Suite 400, Encino, CA, 91436.