Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Lost Jews" video - is there an effective response?

Ed Case’s editorial about the MASA “Lost Jews” video appeared yesterday on JTA.
)Please read it here: http://jta.org/news/article/2009/10/25/1008716/op-ed-what-israelis-need-to-know-about-intermarriage-in-north-america)

Ed states what we professionals experience and wish the world knew, that many interfaith couples are seeking Jewish engagement, looking for programs, support and acceptance. Additionally many Jews in interfaith relationships become more involved in Jewish life than they would have had they married a Jew and been able to simply avoid the question of identity development all together.

But I am concerned that our stories and our defense of interfaith couples is the same song we’ve been singing for years and it is still not listened to.

What are the issues that prevent the Jewish community (in this case MASA) from absorbing our message? The kind of haunting sorrow expressed in the video could have come from an American Jewish institution and would certainly have been experienced as damning, judgmental and hurtful by interfaith couples. The only difference is that in America the messages have become more subtle because our community is more aware of the politically correct stance. So, what’s going wrong? Why do so many Jewish institutions still feel, expressed or concealed, an inability to hear that interfaith marriage is not the cause of assimilation and all it’s implications to the loss of Judaism?

1. Fear. People, Jewish or not, are paralyzed by fear. They do not become more open or creative, rather they tend to run faster in the same circle. So only a non-fear based message is going to reach them. Defensive messages reek of our own fear, so we just stimulate theirs.

2. Defensiveness. From fear to defense is a very short jump. After the outpouring of rage and hurt in reaction to the video MASA pulled the film and… and nothing. Smacked down by the reaction they got I’ve heard nothing more from MASA. So did we “win”? I don’t think so. Shutting down your opponent works only if you never want to have anything to do with them again. Winning in my mind is getting a new and good conversation going.

3. Lack of information. Our typical exchange has just been demonstrated: Statement against interfaith marriage, Anger and hurt expressed, Conversation shut down. No actual information has been exchanged. So the two sides go away, both of them hurt, both more certain of their “side” being right and neither better understanding the other.

What can we do better to get our message across?

In an angst ridden environment like this the first thing to do is listen. I doubt that anyone went to MASA and asked them, could you tell us about your concerns and what you were hoping to accomplish with your video? Let’s say the answer is, we want more Jews to come to Israel because that will make them feel more Jewish. AH! Great, we have two things to work on: How to get more Jews to Israel and how to make more Jews feel Jewish. So MASA, we could answer, it appears that that video didn’t do the job but let’s talk about how to accomplish your goals in other ways.

Back to America, how can we get out our message, that welcoming interfaith couples, supporting their family process and being their partners in their Jewish journeys (should they choose Judaism) is the best way to stem the lost of Jews?

First, we don’t attack, we talk. Again, we begin with listening to the fears of our Jewish agencies, CEOs, the guy sitting next to us in a meeting or the synagogue. Then, armed with the facts we begin a caring conversation. We express our own concern. “I’m in this work because I care deeply about the Jewish people.” We get to know their fears, their goals. Then we talk about how they can attain those goals, which are probably very much like MASA’s, for more Jews to be engaged and committed to Jewish life. We readily quote the data from studies. We give examples from our own work. And we acknowledge that, like Jewish education, there is no quick fix. This is the work of every generation, the work of a lifetime.

One approach that I am using more is to talk about the innocents in this turmoil, the children of intermarriage who did not do anything more than be born to their parents. Whether they are considered halachically Jewish or raised Jewish or are Christian with Jewish heritage, hurting them is cruel and wrong. There is nothing more self defeating than to dismiss the children, our children, as not truly a part of our family. In an article that I found very powerful, Benjamin Hartman, the son of a conversionary family said it well (emphasis is mine):

As a child of a mixed-marriage myself, I know quite intimately how a Jewish life lived on the frontiers of the Diaspora (Texas) in a family of suspect Jewish pedigree can still engender a very strong identity with Judaism.

If anything, I've learned that such a background can make the bonds stronger. I also have learned that no matter how strong that bond feels, and even if it does drive you to live in Israel, it's not up to the child of the mixed-marriage to decide whether they are alienated from Judaism, a simple dismissal by the Rabbinate of your Jewish credentials and your entire upbringing does a much better job.

(Read Benjamin’s article here: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1113190.html)

I would like to add that Benjamin is NOT the child of an interfaith marriage; his mother converted. When will we stop dismissing the conversions our rabbis perform? That would be an excellent first step.

My friends, let’s put our own outrage and hurt in the freezer for now and engage our stressed and reactive community in healing conversations about effective methods that engage Jews in interfaith families. Along the way we will draw in a lot of other alienated Jews too, because a real welcome is a welcome to all.