Remarks presented at “Reaching Out: An Intergenerational Forum” at the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly on November 20, 2002.
I want to begin by telling you a small part of my story.
I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. I liked Hebrew school. I enjoyed services. I went to a USY camp. I won an essay contest when I was 12 by picking Yom Kippur as my favorite Jewish holiday.
But when I was a senior in high school I went on a date with a friend, Wendy Bosworth, a church-going Episcopalian. I fell in love with her that night 34 years ago. Is it possible for a non-Jew to be the basherte (intended sweetheart) of a Jew? I’m certain Wendy is mine.
We had a difficult 6-year courtship because my parents were so upset, but when we told them we were going to get married they wisely welcomed her. She took an Introduction to Judaism class, not planning to convert, but wanting to learn.
When our children got to school age we joined a welcoming Reform synagogue. Wendy took a class to learn Hebrew. The temple started an interfaith discussion group where we found support and lasting friendships. I eventually became the president of the synagogue — and my non-Jewish wife was the social action committee co-chair for many years.
Our children experienced Shabbat dinner every week. They became Bat and Bar Mitzvah and were confirmed. We traveled to Israel as a family. My daughter was the co-leader of the Yale Hillel Reform minyan (quorum of ten Jews needed to read from the Torah) for a year. My son traveled to Israel again on a NFTY trip. I don’t know whom they will marry — they both have very serious relationships, one with a Jew, one with a non-Jew. But they both have unambiguous Jewish identities that are important to them.
And that is true even though we spend Christmas with my in-laws. My children experience Christmas as a warm family time with no religious significance whatsoever. Please don’t look through a traditionally observant lens and tell me that because my children honor their grandparents by sharing their Christmas, they are “Jewish and something else.” The interfaith couples I know are outraged at that suggestion.
If you ask Wendy her religion, she’ll say, “I live Jewishly but am not a Jew.” We attend Shabbat services every week. She thinks about converting from time to time. I am neutral on that issue — if she decides to convert, great. If she doesn’t, fine — there’s nothing more she could do to contribute to Jewish life and Jewish continuity than she has already. She supported my decision to give up a partnership at a large law firm to go to Brandeis’ Hornstein Program and then pursue my passion for outreach to the intermarried.
The details of my life, like anyone’s, are unique — but I tell you my story precisely because in its outlines it is common. There are many thousands of families like mine. My message today it is that there is a tremendous potential for positive engagement in Jewish life by interfaith families, the potential for interfaith families to raise their children with as unambiguous a Jewish identity as the children of two Jewish parents.
Now I know this not only from my own personal experience, but also from my work at InterfaithFamily.com. I know it from the writers of the more than 500 articles we’ve published in our bi-weekly Internet magazine and from our 12,500 and growing monthly readers. They are looking for and finding a positive picture of engagement in Jewish life — welcoming, non-judgmental information and resources on Jewish life and on interpersonal issues interfaith families deal with. I know it from people I meet when I speak about our book, The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life. (I’m sure Dr. Wertheimer, when he just referred to some books about interfaith life as “trash,” didn’t mean to include our book, since our book includes articles by such leading Conservative rabbis as Rabbi Bradley Artson, the dean of the University of Judaism’s rabbinical school, and Rabbi Myron Geller, a member of the Committee on Law and Standards.) I know it from the people who talk on our online discussions. They want to know what others like them are doing and seek support for the decisions they are making. I know it from people who ask us where they can find welcoming rabbis and synagogues and programs and who thank us for offering current program listings in our “Connections in Your Area” section — we now cover Boston, San Francisco and Washington DC and plan to cover the entire country. And I know it from the people who join our membership association, the InterfaithFamily.com Network, because they want the opportunity to meet others and to support our advocacy for a more welcoming community.
Obviously this potential for engagement in Jewish life is not being realized in enough families. And if the NJPS correctly describes a population that is declining and graying, the decisions that interfaith couples make are even more critical. The only constructive response is to evaluate every attitude, practice, and policy primarily by asking whether it will increase the likelihood that interfaith families will raise their children as Jews.
So — it’s fine to encourage in-marriage by telling young people that their chances of having a Jewish life are greatly increased if they marry another Jew. That’s a statistical fact. But it is counter-productive to encourage in-marriage by demeaning intermarriage. When people who are interdating or intermarried hear Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as “bad for the Jewish people,” “communal suicide” and the like, they are made to feel unwelcome and pushed away. The result: fewer children raised as Jews. And it won’t increase the number of in-marriages either.
It’s fine to encourage conversion. But if we stand at the gates saying, “you can’t come in unless you convert,” if we make conversion a stated preferred option for responding to intermarriage, we push away people who might otherwise come in. The result: fewer children raised as Jews.
The number one concern of interfaith engaged couples and their parents is finding a rabbi to officiate at their wedding. I respect rabbis’ decisions of conscience, but I urge them to officiate. The interfaith couples seeking a Jewish presence at their wedding today are the prospective parents of Jewish children tomorrow. No matter how nicely it is explained, those couples experience rejection when rabbis say no. The result: fewer children raised as Jews.
Non-Jewish parents who raise their children as Jews should be more than just welcomed — they should be the objects of profound gratitude from the Jewish community. Instead of barring a non-Jewish parent from the bima (podium) at his or her child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we should be honoring that parent for their contribution to Jewish continuity.
As Barry Shrage says so well, we need to make Jewish life so vibrant, magnetic, and attractive that people will want it. Continuity programs aimed at doing so should be expanded. But we can both invite interfaith families to participate in those programs — as Boston’s federation does on every program invitation — and at the same time provide programs specifically aimed at welcoming interfaith families themselves.
Every evaluation of these programs shows that the Jewish involvement of participants increases, whether measured by self-assessment, decisions to join synagogues, decisions to raise children as Jews or decisions to convert. But outside of Boston, San Francisco, Metrowest New Jersey and some other areas, there is almost no federation support for outreach programs, and the few private foundations that support this work wonder why others do not join them. Every sizable Jewish community should not only provide programs that welcome interfaith families, but also publicize their existence — and the message that the Jewish community welcomes their involvement.
I urge Jewish leaders to seize an opportunity to expand and enrich our community by doing what is necessary to increase the numbers of interfaith families who raise their children as Jews.