Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Term Limits are not Enough

In an article picked up from The Jewish Week, today’s ePhilanthropy offers Mark Charendoff's, president of the Jewish Funders Network, suggestion that term limits be imposed on Jewish communal CEOs.

He offers the following benefits. Term limits would:

1. Create a discomfort that generates vibrancy and creativity.
2. New heads of agencies would bring in new people to the board.
3. Middle management professionals would have a chance to move up.
4. Money would be saved as the rising salary of the CEO will be readjusted with the newer, younger hire.
5. Too many agencies are extensions of their CEO, change would break that up.

Generally I agree with him. Agencies do often become the CEO’s private club. Salaries seem to escalate due to years in the job rather than productivity. Middle managers abandon Jewish communal work out of frustration and lack of a living wage, to say nothing of young starry eyed entry level staff who wake up one day and decide to move into the for-profit sector where their talents will be rewarded.

But I also hear a male voice in this message; let me share a perspective that may sound feminine – a quality that Mr. Charendoff is suggesting should be added in the new leadership. Mr. Charendoff’s first suggestion is discomfort brings creativity; we need more discomfort. Has this man been around Jews?! I would say that discomfort and a lack of ease define Jews. And that discomfort has often caused people to cling to old ways. I’ve seen best work done by those who believe they have room to maneuver and know they have the support of their peers. Take a look at non-Jewish Pixar, a place where creativity flows in abundance. The “secret” is not a sense of uncertainly but rather an atmosphere of independence. The employees are permitted time to work on their own concepts. How about we get Jewish CEOs who invite their staffs to take a little chunk of time to dream their best dreams? Then put some of those dreams into action.

Will a new CEOs bring new people to the table? Some will; some won’t. I’m not sure I want the people they would bring; it could be a new set of cronies. I believe the goal is new faces, new demographics: young Jews, Jews of color, single Jews, Jews in interfaith marriages; in other words, the ever evolving face of the Jewish community. A good CEO can do this, period. However, I concede there is an expectation that with a new leader come changes. So the term limit has potential in that it creates a willingness, or at least anticipation, among staff and lay leaders that there will be changes.

Another feminine perspective, I don’t believe in “loyalty opposition;” I believe in trust that creates an openness to hearing a differing opinion. There is plenty of in-fighting already. What would cooperation look like?

Finally, I got a chuckle out of Mr. Charendoff’s making an exception for heads of family foundations. I like his honesty in pointing out that it appears self serving. This may be a case of, living in that family foundation forest it’s hard for him to see the trees. Let me suggest that he is wrong. Who needs shaking up more than a wealthy family that has come to believe their will is God? Perhaps a new CEO, one who questions their views and offers a new perspective, would be a way to get their juices flowing. Perhaps even excite and entice them to dare to try new things and to explore support beyond the dreary and deadly three year grant (one year in the current economy) into a new world in which they create a legacy by supporting some of the Jewish organizations that reach out to the fastest growing, most discomforting portion of our community, interfaith families.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Opinions on the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding

In a recent JTA article Jacob Berkman collected comments from the anointed experts on intermarriage in response to the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding.

To what extent are their comments useful to those of us doing the work?
Do they reflect our experience?

Let's review.

Steven Cohen, Hebrew Union College sociologist
We should “celebrate the full acceptance of Jews by the larger society that this marriage represents," Steven Cohen told JTA via e-mail from Jerusalem. At the same time, he noted, the fact that so few children of interfaith unions, particularly those between Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, are raised solely as Jews raises the conundrum of our age: “How do we Jewishly engage and educate the intermarried, while at the same time maintaining our time-honored commitment to inmarriage?” Cohen asked. “In short, we should celebrate the particular marriage of these two fine individuals, but we ought not celebrate the type of marriage it constitutes and represents."

Stats show that he is correct about Jewish fathers being less likely to raise their children Jewish. This signals me that we need to reexamine what we do for these families and step up to the challenge.

Cohen will no doubt be beaten up by the liberal end of outreach talking-heads for this opinion. But he raises two important issues for us to consider:
1. How do we engage the intermarried while simultaneously supporting inmarriage? I suggest that we think of these marriages as two of our own children – which indeed they represent. I love my children equally. They each need different things. We can multitask. Please share the programs you offer for different populations.
2. Can we celebrate this marriage but not this type of marriage? I can’t really lump all interfaith marriages together. I have to look at each individual couple. I can celebrate couples who are open, honest, thoughtful; who are discussing their choices and making decisions, being flexible and caring. I can’t support ANY marriage that involves avoidance, denial, and even lying – whether it is interfaith or not.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies“Jewish men and women are senators and congressmen, and are in key positions in the White House,” observed Leonard Saxe. “This is a golden age for Jews in America, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the daughter of a former president and the daughter of the secretary of state marries a Jewish man she has known much of her life.”

This is indeed the golden age for Jews in America. I pray that we keep our strength and use it to support and sustain less fortunate Jews around the world.

Paul Golin, the associate director of the Jewish Outreach Institute
“She has married in. Some will say he married out, but if he was marrying out, there wouldn’t have been anything Jewish. The fact that they went to the effort to have a chupah and have a rabbi and that he wore a tallis says a lot about their future direction. Otherwise, why bother?”

This is a one of those well intended statements that simply doesn’t fit with reality and I suspect comes from a kneejerk response to a painful experience of hearing the in-out debate.

“Why bother?” to have Jewish symbols but nothing more? For parents. For grandparents. Because it is expected. Because he is a Jew and that’s his idea of what a wedding looks like. Because Jewish symbols are fun, beautiful and meaningful. But not a single one of those reasons tells us what the future will hold. I have heard brides and grooms tell me all the above reasons. They have even said, “this is probably the last Jewish thing I’ll do, but I am a Jew.”

Whether a couple is inside or outside Judaism will be revealed when they raise their children. They may each stay within their own religious tradition, but where will they direct their children?

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Wernick said intermarriage is certainly “not ideal,” but that the Conservative movement in 2008 decided that it must welcome interfaith families and “help their spouses along their spiritual journeys.”

I am guessing that the “not ideal” part means that not all interfaith marriages will chose a Jewish home and perpetuate the Jewish people. He is correct.

I don’t want to leave the Conservative movement with this brief and relatively useless quote. I have no idea what comments of Wernick’s were left on the editor’s floor, so to speak. However, the rabbi Berman should have interviewed was Rabbi Charles Simon who created the Keruv Initiative out of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. If you want to see feet on the ground getting things done – you need to call these guys!

Rabbi Shmuley Hecht is Orthodox and the rabbinical adviser at Yale University’s Eliezer Jewish Society
Intermarriage can work only if the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism through an Orthodox conversion and genuinely changes religions. Otherwise, he said, the marriage is doomed to fail because down the road any self-aware Jew, “however defined, will feel the call of their people and have the fullness of their being disrupted by intermarriage.”

I’m sure he believes this, but he is completely incorrect. I have seen interfaith couples where the Jew is Orthodox and they have happy marriages and successfully raise Jewish children. I’m not saying it is easy; I’m just saying it is possible.

Ed Case, the executive director of
Accepting this marriage and welcoming this intermarried family into the Jewish fold could help pave the way for the Jewish community to be more accepting of others.

I think Ed is right in regard to American Christian community; seeing Chelsea marry a Jew will make Americans more accepting of Jews. But will the wedding make the Jewish community more accepting? I suspect that for those that seek greater acceptance of interfaith couples it will be seen as advantageous, but for those against intermarriage it will be a sign of danger.

I believe Paul Golin is correct on this:
Paul Golin said, noting that as an intermarried person himself, he is turned off by much of the debate over intermarriage as a problem, “The folks who are fearful that my kind of Judaism is going to destroy Judaism are still going to be fearful. The folks who are fully embracing of interfaith families are going to be embracing. I don’t see a whole lot of movement.”

I found the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s comments, to be among the most depressing:
“The price of our reaffirmation in American society is a high rate of intermarriage,” he said. “We can’t be embraced and not expect that our young people won’t be marrying with their young people. Unless we are prepared to withdraw into a ghetto, there is no solution.”
“I look at the couple and my response is, ‘I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religion and tradition and second, as a Jew and rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism. I don’t know if they have had that conversation.”

Ouch! However, he does say the magic word: CONVERSATION. One of the Alliance experts has a great catch phrase: It’s the conversation, stupid. By that she means, we spend a lot of time on what we’ll do, what programs we’ll create, what we think synagogues, day schools, rabbis, etc. ought to do, but at the end of the day it is simply and most importantly about having a caring and honest conversation with the interfaith couple themselves.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Orthodox and president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
Said that when marriages break down it usually has little to do with religion. All religions should stop worrying about intermarriage and start worrying about how to help couples make their relationships work.

Although Rabbi Hirschfield is not the last quoted expert in this article I have saved him for last because he speaks the core truth.

Marriages rarely break down because of religion. Being from different religious/cultural traditions of any kind portends a greater likelihood of divorce. Despite our proclamations of loving diversity, the fact is that we humans are less flexible that we tell ourselves and increasing the differences between spouses increases the chance of divorce.

From here forward!
THANK YOU RABBI HIRSCHFIELD! We should stop worrying about intermarriage and start worrying about how to help couples make their relationships work! From your mouth to God’s ears and then to the rest of us!

When we focus our efforts on the well being of the couple, the couple can stop fearing us. They can see us as partners in their journey. We can speak the hard truths and they can listen and actually hear us. Frankly, any mature, well adjusted couple can decide what compromises they want to make, what values they hold close, what sacrifices they will need to make in order to protect their marriage. Once trust is established we can talk honestly about the challenges that may crop up and the couple can ask for our help and expertise in deciding what to do. It is sheer folly to think that we make those decisions for them.

I have had couples contact me to tell me that, upon reflection, they have decided their religions are too important to each of them and they broke up. What a blessing to realize this before a wedding. They usually write me after they have found a sweetheart from their own religion just to say thanks, I’m so happy you met with us. My life is turning out right for me.

As one of my local rabbis says, “We are each in a conversation with God and I don’t know what yours is about.” Our job is to help couples sort out their future together. Their job is to decide what that future looks like.

What about children? When I tell a couple that it is harder to raise a child between religions, a couple that trusts me can listen and consider. Just as parents must decide about dental care, immunization, and schools, they must decide about their child’s religious life.

Trust, honesty, openness, affection, we can’t go wrong when we build these bonds with our couples.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Interfaith Families in the Huffington Post

This morning I got an email with the link to the Huffington Post, Interfaith Families: Can You Be Jewish and Christian at the Same Time? by Kate Kridkis.

I thought, Oy! I don’t even want to see the online comments. People get so nasty in cyberspace.

But what does this article say to professionals? It is proof that we need interfaith couples discussion groups.

Can it be that after more than 25 years of Jewish outreach that there are still so many good willed, uninformed young Jews? Yes, unfortunately, there can.

Also unfortunate, most responses are, as Kate says, angry ones. How can you have a conversation when someone is mad at you? People in Kate’s shoes stop listening. So we leave our young people with the naive belief that more is better, and that letting a child decide is about being fair and decent. Add that, in America, we are currently a culture that thinks that making parental decisions is unhealthy and doesn't allow our children to grow. So relinquishing parental responsibility becomes a virtue.

Note Kate's hopeful comment that with some education the children will be better equipped to make their own choice. Unfortunately what children don't need is the "freedom" to make choices about religion; they do need a community in which to grow up. The nuances of what St. Paul or Moses taught about the value of say, kindness, is not really important to a child. Both traditions support the same universal values. Children start out learning through stories. It is the narrative to which one belongs that both educates the child AND provides them with a place. A place in the fabric of history, a community that both belongs TO THEM and to which THEY BELONG. It is the awareness of the need for this core mutuality that we Americans seem to have lost. Human beings survive in groups - call them tribes, families, towns - they are the center from which we venture out. They are the hearth to which we return.

Some individuals in interfaith relationships feel an unarticulated truth, a pull to that core place where they belong and that belongs to them. They can't imagine leaving it. It is too important. So how can they ask their beloved to leave their own, but different, core? So who will go without? Their children. Their kids will not be raised with a place where they belong. The children will be visitors in two places, but not residents. I know these children. Some are perfectly comfortable without a community. They are decent, honest good people. As adults they are in the "no religion" group. Others are wounded; actively concealing their pain from their parents. Sometimes they rage at the Jewish and Christian communities; it's a lot easier to be mad at a faceless group that to be mad at Mom and Dad. So the alienation for them continues.

I've heard the angry comment, "So many people are intermarrying that soon we'll out number the rest of the Jews." Step aside from the obvious pain this expresses and the need to comfort and sooth these people for a moment and let's just examine this common misconception.

Being the child of an interfaith couple is a born-into status. You can't convert others to be children of interfaith families. Two percent of Americans are Jews and 50% of those Jews are intermarrying. Of those couples generally speaking, one third are raising Jewish kids, one third are raising Christian kids and one third are doing both or neither – more in the neithers camp. So we now have a group totaling >1/3 of 1/2 of 2%. Spread those folks out over the vast stretch that is America. OK. Now, how fast do you really think this group is going to "out number" the mainstream Jews?

But this kind of huffy defensiveness gets going because people feel cut out and hurt. They want to turn the table and become the insiders. If we act on their, at times repressed desire, the longing to be included, we would make a lot more progress. If we provided warm, caring places to have the difficult conversations, to lovingly bring up the hard questions, more Kates would get a chance to think this through, the same way she'll have to think through immunization, public school, vegetarianism.

What if one, or more, of these couples decide they aren't going to choose? They are going to boldly do both. What I tell my couples then is, in my opinion you have chosen the harder road. Now it becomes all the more important that you and I remain in touch. What if you need help? What if you hit a tough issue that isn't working out? Then you need to know that I'm not mad at you, that I care about you, that I want to help think things out with you. You have to feel confident that you can call me.

Sincerity and kindness can go places that angry and rejection cannot tread.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Birthright NEXT

I am sending you a link to an article by Al Levitt, president of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the new chairman of Birthright Israel NEXT.

Although his article does not speak directly to interfaith couples or the young people from interfaith families who participate in Birthright Israel, you and I know that those kids are signing up for this trip. I am more than thrilled to say that Birthright has a very open approach to who can participate. I’ve heard some complain that the program it too forceful in its positive message about Israel. I find that absurd. If you were sending your child to Italy would you want them to spend their time meeting people and seeing the sites, or getting a lecture about how lousy the Italians are? There is plenty of time and millions of people to rain on their parade once they get back home.

I love the trip. My concern was, what about when they come home? Is that the end? I saw my own daughter come back excited from the trip but, having gone with a group that originated from Los Angeles, she had no new Jewish connections locally. Then the San Francisco Birthright NEXT opened. I was delighted. It is still feeling its way and has some kinks to work out, but it’s here!

Birthright takes young adults age 18 to 26. Kids between 18 and 26 are doing some of the most significant brain growth of their lives. That means they are very different at age 19 or 20 than they are at 23 or 26. I had an interesting conversation with several young women who talked about the incredible amount of stratification that occurs at young adult events by age! So Birthright NEXT is biting off a big project.

I am highly invested in their success. What would help? I have two good ideas. One is, you let the young people do a lot of the decision making regarding events. That I believe in happening. Alums can make suggestions about what they would like to see take place.

The second thing they need is strong, experienced leadership. This they don’t have. They have several sweet young things doing their best. But let’s be realistic, they are being expected to run a major operation and they are in their 20s. I believe a better model is the one I am seeing unfold on my son’s Young Judea trip. Young Judea has a more experienced leader, a man in his late 30s, heading up the site. Under him are younger staff who relate to the teens. What does my 19 year old son think of the “old guy”? In his words, “I frickin’ love him!” I am hopeful that as NEXT builds it’s local staff they will get senior staff that has some seniority to offer. We have a bad habit of worshiping youth in this country. It has leaked over into our sense of who should be in charge. Young people want role models. Have you read the data out of Hillel? This generation is more attached to their parents (us) than we were to our parents. They want us in their lives. We need to be there. Not as managers, as consultants.

I am excited about the potential I see in Birthright NEXT. I am also proud to say that there are a number of amazing programs that young people in the bay area are starting on their own. I hope that Birthright will partner with them and they will all cross fertilize. I dream of a well publicized programs that attract that offer a wide range of activities for our next generation of diverse Jewish young adults.

I can only thank Al Levitt, the Jim Joseph Foundation and all connected with Birthright for putting their money where their mouth is! If we want young people to be Jewish, let’s be part of making that possible and meaningful!

I would love to hear about efforts to reach out to and support the engagement of young people – especially those from interfaith families - in your communities.